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Janie B. Cheaney: How to cure the epidemic of loneliness


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: How to cure the epidemic of loneliness

Government programs make promises, but families, churches, and communities do the heavy lifting

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifying about youth mental health care before the Senate Finance Committee, Feb. 8, 2022 Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh (file)

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 6th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: an epidemic of loneliness. WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney says we know the solutions, but government programs can get in the way.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: If you’re feeling lonely, you can at least sing about it. Some of bestselling songs of all time have “lonely” in the title. I bet you can think of at least three off the top of your head. Loneliness is a common human experience and it’s a rare soul who hasn’t felt isolated or alienated—not once, but many times.

More recently, though, loneliness has become a social issue, even a crisis. Suicides, drug abuse, and mental and physical decline are attributed to it. In May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published an 82-page advisory on “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

“All the lonely people,” wondered Paul McCartney—“where do they all come from?” Politicians and pundits now wonder, “What can we do about it?”

The UK made loneliness a matter of policy with the establishment of the Jo Cox Commission. Cox was a Member of Parliament who raised the issue but was tragically murdered in 2016. The commission’s 2017 report recommended a Ministry of Loneliness to track national indicators, publish an annual report, and fund initiatives.

The Commission’s latest Annual Report for 2022 detailed lots of initiatives, such as community gardens, local Happy Cabs for free transportation, “Know Your Neighbourhood” projects, and an online "Tackling Loneliness Hub"  for professionals and community leaders. Results? Well, according to the report, “The number of adults experiencing chronic loneliness in England has remained consistent over the last five years at 6% . . . However, since 2018 we have developed a much greater understanding of which groups are more at risk of experiencing loneliness.”

Happy Cabs sound like fun and have doubtless created neighborhood bonds. But don’t we already know who’s at risk? Singles, phone-addicted youth, and old folks without immediate family, as well as the relocated, mentally unstable, or physically disabled. Anyone, in other words, who lacks human connection. If our society is especially lonely, it’s because the natural and traditional connections of family, church, and community have broken down.

What is the fix? Politicians turn to political solutions because that’s what they do. In the U.S., Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut has proposed a “National Strategy for Social Connection Act.” The bill would create an Executive office to coordinate efforts to “combat loneliness and strengthen communities” and “develop a government-wide strategy to integrate social connection policy.” And of course, provide funding—notably to the CDC for “research on social connection, loneliness, and social infrastructure.” Never mind that the CDC’s COVID recommendations contributed to the greatest breakdown of social connection in living memory.

Two corollaries follow the establishment of any government office. One, the purpose for which it was established becomes secondary to sustaining the office itself. Two, the original issue, however nonpolitical, becomes politicized. And “weaponized.” Loneliness is a human problem, not a government problem. Government intervention has done enough to loosen the bonds of family, church, and community. It’s up to families, churches, and communities to bind us again.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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