In his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden announced a national strategy to address the country’s escalating mental health crisis, naming what so many of us have lived and felt: “Even before the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety were inching higher. But the grief, trauma, and physical isolation of the last two years have driven Americans to a breaking point.” In doing so, the president—rightly—drew a line between isolation and mental health, and elevated loneliness to the level of national crisis.
COVID-19 has drawn attention to loneliness and isolation as societal conditions, a pandemic within a pandemic. The entire world was thrown into isolation as never before. It was as if everyone's door was shut.
In fact, loneliness is a condition that, together with other social drivers of health (SDOH), impacts upward of 80% of health outcomes. Two years into the pandemic, it is understandable to want to leave this dark period behind. But we’re at a moment of reckoning: Either we find a way to combat loneliness, or we face profound social erosion and the related impact to our physical and mental health.
Social scientists have been chronicling the spread of loneliness since the upheaval of the 1960s. The decline of the influence of traditional institutions triggered a reordering of American society and identity, where “we” was eclipsed by “I.” In the past 30 years, the rise of technology has removed us from the in-person contact that once characterized daily routines. In addition to technology’s ubiquitous impact, other cross-generational causes of loneliness include the mobility of younger generations away from older family members; and the shifting location of work away from an office, which was historically central for discovering personal relationships and community. The structures that had engaged and stabilized our lives—school for Generation Zers, the workplace for millenials and boomers, nearby family for older Americans—are under stress, and so are we.
The State of the Union address made it clear, “We need a whole-of-society effort to address these concerns: to expand prevention programs and actions that improve mental health at every age and across settings.” This effort must be rooted in a reclamation of community and companionship. A reimagining of their form and function to not only lessen loneliness, but to create the connections and structure for belonging, so we can be happier, and yes, healthier.
Our rethinking has to start with connection. What systemic innovation can help to transform a culture of “I” into a culture of “we”? How can social capital—networks of trust among people—be cultivated at a time when the nation is fractured?
We must think of the model as a public health solution. This is the moment to make SDoH the focus of health care, with commensurate investment against the circumstances that disproportionately drive health outcomes—housing, food, transportation and, certainly, social support. When I started Papa, it was to solve my grandfather’s social care needs. Now, “companion care”—a new model of care pioneered by Papa—is helping us think about how to build community in new ways—with promising results.
In building a company built on connection, I’ve learned that we achieve not just safety—but health—in numbers. If we see shared experience as the center of how we think and act as a society, we can realize an essential step toward a renewed sense of community. The sense of collectivism that was once part of our national experience is overdue to return.
What it means to come and be together, in our increasingly atomized and digital world, is the challenge of the 21st century. We are doing a better job of raising awareness on mental health, and yet too often define the problem, its effects, and its betterment, in individualized ways. The current awakening requires action as a community, for community. A companionship solution is only one instrument for change as we take bold action to reverse our state of crisis.
Andrew Parker is currently the founder and CEO of Papa, where he and his team look to provide an incredible experience to seniors and provide support throughout the aging journey. Parker has a long history in the healthcare industry and was one of the initial employees at MDLIVE, a leading telehealth provider.