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Growing loneliness epidemic speaks to ‘the difference between connecting and belonging’

On Tuesday’s show, local experts (from left) Amy Bertschausen, Elizabeth Sergel and Dixie Meyer discussed loneliness and its increasing impact across generations.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

recent survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults suggests that most Americans struggle with an emotional state of loneliness, and it’s an issue that has serious health implications.

“[It can] have the same health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Elizabeth Sergel said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “There’s significant increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke and dementia and depression, and overall there’s a higher likelihood of death related to loneliness.”

Sergel, who works for the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater St. Louis, joined two other local experts and host Don Marsh for a discussion about the increasing prevalence of loneliness and ideas for how to address it.

Rev. Amy Bertschausen, executive director of Care and Counseling, noted that while loneliness is a common problem among older adults, it’s affecting more and more younger people, too.

“We see [it] skewing younger and younger,” said Bertschausen, who is trained in suicide prevention. “I think it has to do with the difference between connecting and belonging. We’re all pretty well connected in terms of Facebook and that kind of thing, but it’s not really belonging to one another and having that level of intimacy and relationship.”

The impact of technologies such as social media loomed large during the conversation. Dr. Dixie Meyer, an associate professor in Saint Louis University’s Medical Family Therapy Program, emphasized the importance of “monitoring how you use” such platforms.

“It really has to make us question ourselves,” said Meyer, who is also the director of SLU’s Relationships & Brain Sciences Research Laboratory. “Are these connections [actually offering] that sense of belonging … or are they superficial, in that sense where people don’t feel like they actually connected with someone and that process makes them more sad and lonely?”

But technology can also cut both ways, the experts agreed. Sergel, who directs her organization’s volunteer-powered Visit-A-Bit program, noted that social media can be one helpful tool in addressing loneliness among local seniors who can’t always interact with others in the ways that they used to.

“Loneliness is triggered by some form of loss, and there’s so much loss that comes with seniors,” Sergel said. “They leave their jobs … their spouses and their friends begin to pass away, they lose their hearing, they lose transportation options.”

Meyer added that loneliness, which she described as “not a choice,” unfortunately tends to feed further loneliness due to a “difference in brain state” and hypervigilance to social cues and a sense of rejection.

“Individuals [who are lonely] start to become even more socially sensitive to rejection,” she explained.

When asked to distinguish between loneliness and solitude, the latter of which may well be a desired state, Bertschausen said it comes down to having options.

“And lonely means, ‘I don’t have options,’” she said. “When we have options, we’re being alone. When we don’t have options, we’re lonely, and we don’t have someone we feel like we can reach out to that we’re deeply connected to who really wants to hear about our day, whether it was good or bad or just average. That’s a big difference.”

Listen to the full conversation:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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