The Power of Social Connectedness: Endorsing the Surgeon General’s Approach to Resolving America’s “Epidemic of Loneliness”

Loneliness is not an isolated, individual experience; it has the potential to negatively affect entire communities, with long-lasting consequences.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called loneliness a threat to the nation’s health, saying that its mortality impact is “similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.” This epidemic affects all ages, socioeconomic levels, and racial and ethnic groups in the United States. 

To address the issue, Dr. Murthy proposed a national framework to rebuild connection and community in America.

The Jed Foundation (JED) endorses the Surgeon General’s efforts to curb this “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” by facilitating social connectedness. JED’s mission is to protect the mental health of teens and young adults and prevent suicide. Loneliness and isolation, including experiences of being bullied or marginalized, are significant risk factors for mental health problems and suicidal behavior; conversely, the scientific link between social connectedness and mental health-promoting behaviors is powerful and longstanding. 

One of the pillars of JED’s evidence-based Comprehensive Approach is promoting social connectedness in schools and communities. Adolescents and young adults who feel connected to and cared for by others are less likely to experience emotional distress or suicidal ideation, and they are less likely to engage in substance misuse or attempt suicide.

The Jed Foundation is pleased that the Surgeon General’s framework aligns with the work that the organization has been undertaking for over two decades. Emphasizing the need to proactively nurture human connection as a national health imperative, his plan outlines measures to rebuild our social infrastructure. It recommends actionable steps for various entities, including schools, community organizations, and media and technology companies. JED expands upon those recommendations below.

Creating Inclusive School Climates

Schools are one of the most powerful places for young people to experience social connectedness. For example, schools that demonstrate inclusivity toward the most marginalized groups, on a day-to-day basis, and incorporate social acceptance into their value systems, make all students feel more connected and protected.

Recommendations for schools include:

  • Modeling inclusivity
  • Facilitating equitable classroom management
  • Creating mentoring programs
  • Hosting peer-led programs
  • Encouraging peer support groups
  • Addressing isolation in health classes
  • Building partnerships with key community organizations

Strengthening Community Connections

By strengthening community connections, we develop the instinct to trust one another and look out for our neighbors. For young people, participating in meaningful activities like civic engagement can help counter a growing sense of frustration, anxiety, powerlessness, or even fear about the future

The Surgeon General’s framework calls on all of us to create a “culture of connection” that is not only advanced through formal programs and policies, but also through “the informal practices of everyday life—the norms and culture of how we engage one another.” 

While acknowledging that efforts must look different to meet the needs of diverse groups, JED seeks to build this “culture of connection” with young people in all of the places they spend their time–and not just face to face. That involves engaging with them on social media and informing entertainment entities, like screenwriters and production companies, on how best to tell stories that reflect the experiences of young people today, while promoting connectedness, belonging, and a message that no one is alone. 

Promoting Safety Online

As JED has acknowledged, in alignment with a subsequent advisory from the Surgeon General, it is hard to fully gauge the impact that digital spaces are having on youth mental health. There are some indicators that social media can detrimentally affect self-confidence, body image, and feelings of isolation; however, virtual spaces can also offer young people a chance to come together, find acceptance, and connect with their communities (which is especially important for certain demographics, including AAPI, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ youth). 

One way to best encourage the positive aspects of social connectedness through technology while minimizing harm is by taking a pro-safety approach, enacted collectively by researchers, educators, policymakers, and tech companies.

But any plan to strengthen communities for young people must ask for, and then incorporate, their input. The Jed Foundation believes in harnessing digital spaces for social good, while encouraging young people to turn away from the negative feedback loops that can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness. Young people can provide the most authentic insights about promoting healthy engagement online–and building meaningful relationships beyond the screen, as well.

Scaling Efforts to Promote Social Connectedness, Together

The Jed Foundation is committed to continuing growing efforts in high schools, colleges, and universities nationwide, while sharing resources with young people–and their families–that help them to choose positive support systems, to advocate for equity and against bullying in communal spaces, and to grow comfortable with the help-seeking and help-giving behavior that is the cornerstone of a connected, flourishing society. 

JED offers its partnership and guidance to tech industry leaders, community organizers, educators, legislators, and others dedicated to enacting policies that will create stronger communities in real-world and digital spaces, which young people can safely explore and inhabit, so that they can build rewarding relationships, protect their mental health, and thrive.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.