In 2014, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy assumed the role of the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, at this time he was unaware of the profound impact loneliness and social isolation could have on public health. However, a transformative listening tour across the nation revealed a stark reality: a significant portion of Americans felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant. This revelation led Dr. Murthy to redefine his approach to public health, recognizing the urgent need to address the epidemic of loneliness. Following his time as Surgeon General, Murthy co-chaired President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board from November 2020 to January 2021, alongside former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler and Yale public health professor Marcella Nunez-Smith. On December 7, President Biden announced Murthy would return to the role of U.S. surgeon general. In 2021 Murthy was re-appointed by the Senate and became the 21st Surgeon General. This time with his accumulated knowledge on loneliness and social isolation he was ready to make addressing it a priority.
The Scale of Loneliness:
Dr. Murthy’s observations were substantiated by scientific literature, indicating that approximately one in two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness even before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue. Loneliness, far from just a negative emotion, is linked to severe health risks such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The impact on mortality is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even exceeds the risks associated with obesity and physical inactivity.
A Call to Action:
Realizing the societal and individual consequences of social disconnection, Dr. Murthy issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory, drawing attention to the urgent need for a collective response. He highlighted the necessity of prioritizing social connection in the same way as addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis. The advisory serves as a blueprint for building connected lives and a more united society.
Building a Movement:
Dr. Murthy’s call to action extends beyond individuals to encompass a diverse array of stakeholders, including families, schools, workplaces, healthcare and public health systems, technology companies, governments, faith organizations, and communities. The goal is to destigmatize loneliness and reshape cultural and policy responses to foster healthy relationships.
The advisory emphasizes the role of individuals in addressing loneliness. Dr. Murthy encourages everyone to take simple yet powerful steps in their lives, such as answering a friend’s phone call, sharing a meal, listening without distractions, performing acts of service, and expressing oneself authentically. These actions, he believes, are the keys to unlocking the healing power of human connection.
A Whole-of-Society Approach:
The Surgeon General’s Advisory is not just a public statement but a comprehensive guide for a national strategy. It explores the cultural, community, and societal dynamics that drive connection or disconnection. Recommendations extend to governments, healthcare systems, insurers, public health departments, research institutions, philanthropy, schools, workplaces, community-based organizations, technology companies, and the media.
The advisory is grounded in decades of interdisciplinary research, drawing upon sociology, psychology, neuroscience, political science, economics, and public health. Dr. Murthy consulted with more than 50 experts across various sectors, incorporating their insights into a document that reflects a thorough review of scientific literature and aligns with recommendations from esteemed organizations such as the National Academies of Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, and the World Health Organization.
Dr. Vivek Murthy’s advocacy against loneliness and social isolation marks a pivotal moment in public health discourse. His Surgeon General’s Advisory serves as a rallying cry for a united effort to mend the social fabric of the nation. By recognizing the healing effects of social connection and implementing the recommended strategies, individuals and communities can contribute to building a healthier, happier, and more resilient society. The responsibility lies with each of us, as our actions today shape the future of our collective well-being.
Saenz, Arlette; Zeleny, Jeff; Sullivan, Kate (December 7, 2020). “Biden nominates Dr. Vivek Murthy to reprise role as US surgeon general”. CNN. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
“Biden-Harris Transition Announces COVID-19 Advisory Board”. President-Elect Joe Biden. November 9, 2020. Archived from the original on November 15, 2020. Retrieved November 9, 2020.