Health & Wellness

Loneliness epidemic leaves none behind

How the crisis of solitude has permeated through campuses and generations.

When Cat Moore was a student at USC, she thought she was among the loneliest people anyone could imagine. After she formed her first genuine bond on campus with one of her philosophy professors, Moore became fascinated by the study of human connection, and went on to complete her honors thesis on the conditions for community. Now, Moore is back at USC as its first Director of Belonging, working to create experiences and resources to help people across campus—and now, across socially distanced homes—deepen their social interactions.

Long before COVID-19 made social isolation and six-foot separation a health requirement, there was another public health crisis on college campuses: loneliness. It is one USC recognized in 2018, when it appointed Moore to help students create more meaningful social ties.

Her work is likely to take on more urgency in the coming months. Now, as USC has moved to remote learning, we are more socially isolated than ever before. Students, even those with precarious living situations, were compelled to leave campus. The issue is especially acute for graduating seniors. The unprecedented end to this semester means the end of their college experience altogether: goodbyes unsaid, graduation pictures not yet taken, commencement ceremonies withheld, the “families” that students have created for themselves on campus shattered.

Now, with everyone stuck inside, Moore has taken her small, discussion-based class called CLICK, in which students, staff, and faculty explore meaningful connections from a face-to-face setting to an online setting. CLICK has expanded its capacity from 15 to 40 students in order to reach more people in a time when the topic of social connection is becoming more relevant than ever.

From just the first two online sessions, Moore has already seen a higher engagement in her course than she’s ever seen in person, one she attributes to the lockdown. “There's just been giant disruption to our lifestyles and normal modes of relating,” said Moore, “so I think that there's a more intense felt need, with fewer options for how to get that need met.”

Moore and her team at the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life have added a spiritual wellness feature to their website where USC community members can now request a check-in from a religious or spiritual leader in this time of crisis.

But the issue of loneliness is not limited to college students. More than three in five Americans report feeling lonely, according to a recent study conducted by the insurance company Cigna. The former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy found the situation so severe, he addressed it in a new book. And the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness in 2018.

“The loneliness crisis [is] getting worse and not better,” Varun Soni, the USC Dean of Religious Life said in an email interview. “I no longer view the loneliness crisis as a Generation Z issue but rather as a global issue that impacts people across generations.”

Widespread loneliness is a relatively new phenomenon. As societies industrialized our lifestyles have shifted away from multigenerational homes, large families, and close-knit communities. And while we might be connected online, Facebook friends, Instagram followers, and LinkedIn contacts can’t make up for face-to-face contact.

Dmitri Williams, a USC Annenberg professor who specializes in technology and society, explained that this is because we weren’t exactly designed to interact digitally.

“In evolutionary time, the appearance and adoption of technology has happened in the blink of an eye,” Williams said. “We haven't as a species had a chance to adapt well to everything and some of our technologies push us away physically and emotionally from each other. We're not built for that, and so we feel lonely.” After all, physical touch plays an important role in making us feel happy and connected with one another through the release of dopamine and oxytocin, two hormones better known as the chemicals of happiness and love.

In other words, there is just no digital substitute for the comfort of an actual hug.

“When we're looking at our phones, or games, or whatever it may be, we're not being present for the others physically with us,” said Williams.

As many colleges like USC boast of their school spirit and offer plenty of student organizations to get involved in, students often expect to stride into their social rhythm upon entering college— but the opposite is often true. Moore said it’s common for people to look around and think, “‘Well, everyone else has got it together—what’s wrong with me?’” she said.

The external appearance of perfection can increase our sense of loneliness. That’s something Lauren Monehan, a current senior, felt when she arrived at USC as a spring admit. She spent her first semester feeling so isolated, she almost transferred. Her experience turned around once she joined a sorority sophomore year, and she met her close friends.

Monehan’s biggest wish is that people would let down their facade and be a little more friendly. She hopes people realize that everyone is just trying to go to school and have fun. College should be a community, she said—not a competition.

Her biggest piece of advice to help? Smile. “When I was a spring admit, some things that made my day were people smiling at me randomly, so now I just try to smile at people,” she said, smiling.

For his part, Geoff Cowan, who served as Dean of Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism from 1996 to 2007, tackles the loneliness epidemic through how he teaches his classes. At the beginning of each semester, he assigns group projects in his classes as a way for students to break the ice. And he holds extra office hours called “Coffees with Cowan” so he can get to know up to ten students at a time.

”Your friends from college are probably the best target to be your friends throughout your life,” he said. “If college doesn't create an environment and opportunities for you to make those friends, it's not just that you're feeling lonely when you're here, but you miss something important, lifelong.”

The truth is, if you’re feeling lonely, you’re probably not alone. As is the case with most mental health matters, the first step in combating the issue is to talk openly and candidly about it.

Moore has noticed in her class discussions that all it takes is one act of vulnerability for the whole room to be disarmed enough to speak openly about their own experience.

“It only takes five minutes, if that, for the room to drop their guard and realize this is normal and this is exactly what we need to be talking about, and everyone around me in this room is experiencing something similar,” Moore says. “If more people are willing to be that first person to speak up, it is a gigantic act of kindness for everyone around them.”

Now, as many of us are finishing the semester in our childhood bedrooms, it’s more important than ever for us to reach out to one another. And we’re going to have to rely on our digital tools to do it. In a recent statement, Dean of Religious Life Soni urged the USC community to carve out time for contemplation, introspection, and reflection—and to reconnect with those we love the most.

“Social distancing must not mean emotional distancing,” he said. “As members of a global Trojan Family, we are not isolated beings, but deeply connected to one another across space and time.”