Is your social life damaging your mental health?

More and more evidence shows that people who experience chronic loneliness are at much greater health risks than those who are actively part of a community.

Commentary by Master Sgt. Matt McCoy, 184th Public Affairs

The nation has recently turned its focus to what may be the beginning of a social epidemic, the alarming increase in depression, loneliness and suicides.

You don’t have to search very hard to find evidence of the trends. For instance, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports a 33% suicide rate increase from 1999 through 2017.

The Air Force is no stranger to the problem. An alarming increase in Active Duty suicides led Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright to call for all units to have a one-day stand down to discuss resiliency.

The 184th Wing will host their stand down on Nov. 3.

The Loneliness Factor

According to a 2018 study by Cigna, loneliness is at epidemic levels in America.

The survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 and over showed that most American adults are considered lonely, and that the youngest generation of adults, Generation Z, is the loneliest of all.

Their May 2018 press release revealed alarming results that include:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent)
  • One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them
  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent)
  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent)
  • Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2) – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely
  • Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations
  • Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7)

Did you notice Generation Z? The loneliest generation? Despite their online “connectedness” through social media?

The Risks and Effects

Loneliness and isolation can lead to long-lasting, debilitating effects on the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health in people of all demographics.

According to a 2015 study by The Royal Society Publishing,

  • Depressive symptoms in adulthood are a well-established outcome of loneliness
  • Loneliness has been linked with suicidal ideation in adulthood
  • Sleep is more disrupted in lonelier adults
  • Loneliness impairs executive control, attention and focus in adults
  • Social exclusion and isolation result in poor eating behaviors which leads to obesity
  • Loneliness has been linked to increased use of hospital emergency rooms
  • Loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, increased cortisol and impaired immunity

And the Internet is filled with stories about lonely adults turning to drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behaviors.

These effects can lead to extreme depression and suicidal behaviors.

Sadly, serving in the Armed Forces offers no exemption to the national trend.

According to the Department of Defense’s 2018 Annual Suicide Report, suicide rates across all military branches and components jumped from 511 in 2017 to 541 in 2018. The Air National Guard reported 12 suicides in 2017, and 17 in 2018.

Active components experienced the most alarming increase from 285 suicides in 2017, to 325 in 2018.

The highest percentage of losses were junior enlisted white males, ages 20-29.

These studies and reports should serve as warnings for us older generations to keep a compassionate eye on our younger friends and loved ones.

They should also serve as warnings for Gen Z’s, aka our youngest Airmen, to pay attention to their own mental health and the mental health of those around them.

If depression and suicide rates across America continue their trajectory, we could be headed toward a difficult future.

Possible Solutions for Fighting Jayhawks

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to loneliness and depression, there are many options available to members of the 184th Wing to try to prevent it.

Ways to combat loneliness include:

  • Join an offline community that you relate to (church, sports/fitness, hobbies)
  • Join a volunteer organization
    • Check the 184th Wing App/Bulletins for volunteer opportunities
  • Find ways to serve others (youth coach, music teacher, tutor, Veteran’s Affairs)
    • There’s a historic link between selfless service and personal fulfillment

In recent articles, we’ve talked about simple ways to connect with others and build deep, meaningful relationships.

We’ve also talked about how to become strong Connectors, which makes you and people within your network more resilient.

But if you’re still a little lost, here are other options to surround yourself with fellow Guardsmen.

  • Join your respective council (company grade officer, Airmen, NCO, Senior NCO)
  • Attend chapel services – Sunday of drill, 8 a.m. in Building 54, Conference Room
  • Serve on a planning committee (Holiday Party, Tailgate Party, National Guard Conference)
  • Join the Honor Guard
    • Point of contact is Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lee, 759-7594
  • Join Team Red, White and Blue
    • Point of contact is Senior Master Sgt. Marla Urban, 759-7351
  • Assist the 184th Recruiting and Retention Office at an off-site event
    • Point of contact is Tech. Sgt. Ben Price, 759-7424

Of course, simply surrounding yourself with more people might not decrease loneliness. Those who experience extreme depression still feel alone in a room full of people; even if they’re with the person they love the most.

If you’re experiencing loneliness…if you’re isolating yourself because it feels safer…if you feel lonely, even when you’re surrounded by people who love you…

SEEK HELP IMMEDIATELY!

Talk to a family member. Talk to a friend. Talk to anyone you trust.

And never forget, you’re brothers and sisters in arms are standing by to take your call.

The views expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of the 184th Wing, Kansas National Guard or the United States Air Force.