With Covid-19 still forcing many Americans to stay at home, it should come as no surprise that the country faces an epidemic of loneliness. But as a panel discussion at the recently concluded MedCity INVEST Digital Health virtual conference illustrated, part of the challenge to dealing with that is learning to talk about it.

The panel, “How Do We Tackle the Loneliness Epidemic and Behavioral Health Challenges,” took place Tuesday. The moderator was Flare Capital partner Dan Gebremedhin, and speakers include Quartet Health Chief Product Officer Sarah Donnelly; North Memorial Health Chief Administrative Officer Samantha Hanson; and Sanvello Chief Medical Officer Monika Roots.

In May, a study of 1,013 U.S. adults conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and published in the journal Psychiatry Research, found that loneliness was elevated, with 43% of respondents showing higher than normal scores, which was associated with greater depression and suicidal ideation.

“These were crises before the pandemic, and now with the pandemic, it has reached a fever pitch,” Gebremedhin said, noting that research overall has indicated double-digit increases in depression and suicidal ideation.

One of the biggest barriers to combating loneliness, panelists said, is just getting people to talk about it. People who are lonely are often not full aware that’s what they’re feeling, and discussing can be seen by many as a sign of weakness.

“The first step to combating loneliness is teaching people to be aware of it,” Donnelly said, adding that being lonely doesn’t simply mean solitude or being alone. “I think even that first step of understanding what you’re feeling is a skill that is really missing in the world.”

In the age of Covid-19, some tactics that companies whose employees must work from home have used include virtual happy hours, online book clubs and remote coffee tastings. Still, Roots noted that there has been a change over the course of a generation in being able to talk about loneliness without seeing it as a weakness.

“I think that we can start to change that in the fabric of our society,” Roots said.

Hanson expressed a similar view.

“The courage to discuss one’s loneliness really needs to have support on all fronts, from a workforce perspective,” she said.

Photo: martin-dm, Getty Images

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