Health, Yes

June 27, 2024

Finding connections in the midst of loneliness

There are lonely people at Vanderbilt. There are also ways to connect and find help.

Nighthawks, daydream believers and everyone in between — we all have felt lonely, and we all have ways to connect. (photo by iStock)

The United States surgeon general’s office is known for issuing warnings and advisories about health risks faced by citizens.

Over the years those messages have addressed hazards such as smoking, drunk driving and obesity.

Last year the current surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, added to that list loneliness and social isolation, noting that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, too many Americans were suffering the effects of “the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in our country.”

Lori Rolando, MD, MPH, executive director of Vanderbilt Health and Wellness, has been concerned about social isolation and health for some time, but even she was surprised by some of the surgeon general’s findings.

“I’ve had a sense that loneliness and lack of connection can lead to more depression and anxiety,” she said. “But I think the thing that struck me was the fact that loneliness is a risk factor for other health effects such as heart disease, stroke, dementia, and even some infections.

“It can increase your risk for premature death the same as a 15 cigarette-per-day smoking habit. That was a little more jarring and bracing.”

She noted that social isolation and its health effects impact individuals, communities and the country as a whole.

The mixed blessing of social media

Especially during the pandemic lockdown period, social media was a way for people to stay connected to family and friends when it was no longer possible to visit in person.

It provided a way, through video tools such as Teams and Zoom, for colleagues to continue to work together and meet.

“Social media can be a positive thing,” Rolando said. “It can let you know of community activities and help you to stay connected.”

But it’s human nature that the image that users of social media project is a positive and idealized version of their lives — not false, but edited for public consumption.

There will be pictures of cute children on family outings and puppies at play in the grass. There will not be photos of children throwing tantrums in the grocery store or puppies throwing up on the newly shampooed carpet.

Rolando noted that it is really important not to compare your unedited life to someone else’s curated life.

“Don’t let your vision of yourself be negatively impacted by what you see on social media,” she said.

What Vanderbilt offers employees — a partial rundown

VUMC is a huge place. The main campus dominates several city blocks and contains multiple hospitals, clinics, laboratory buildings and classrooms. There are regional hospitals, walk-in clinics, and satellite locations scattered all over Middle Tennessee and into neighboring states. Many of us work from home.

Rolando knows that finding people with similar interests and connecting with them can seem daunting, and keeping people from feeling lonely in the crowd can be a challenge.

Stepping out can be hard, but there are ways big and small that VUMC and its people honor and reach out to each other

There isn’t one solution, but she is quick to highlight some ways, big and small, that VUMC and its people honor each other and reach out to each other.

  • Service Awards honor those with years of service to VUMC, starting with five years and moving in five-year increments to 50 years and more, and present an opportunity for colleagues in departments to highlight co-workers who have given much to the Medical Center.
  • Affinity Groups and Employee Resource Groups give people with similar interests or backgrounds a way to find others at Vanderbilt who share those interests or backgrounds, and provide points of connection — a way to find a small group in the large place that is the Medical Center.
  • VWell Connect is an online portal to connect members of the Vanderbilt community who are interested in outdoor activities such as hiking, golf, tennis and running.
  • VUMC Human Resources provides Cause for Applause, a way to send messages of support to other employees — as a way to compliment them on a job well done or recognize them on a special day.
  • Recurring events, from the weekly food trucks to the annual events such as Flulapalooza, can bring co-workers and friends together, as well.
  • Departmental initiatives, such as journal clubs, book clubs, exercise groups, and other social gatherings, that foster connections among colleagues.

“I think Vanderbilt does a good job of providing resources to help people stay connected,” Rolando said.

“Nobody is in it alone”

Still, loneliness and isolation are a part of most lives, as least part of the time, and sometimes a little help is exactly what’s needed.

Rolando also offers a reminder that Vanderbilt provides support for employees who are experiencing isolation as a debilitating or painful experience.

“Loneliness is not a rare thing,” she said. “That’s part of the surgeon general’s report, and we know that people at Vanderbilt are experiencing it.”

She has an important message if that sounds like you: “Nobody is in it alone.”

The Work/Life Connections-Employee Assistance Program is available to provide confidential support for employees and spouses who are having a hard time dealing with isolation or with any other life challenge.

“We want to help people, and we want to foster connections because we know it’s important,” Rolando said.

To listen to an edition of the Health and Wellness “Healthier You” wellcast, “How to Establish Connections and Community,” go here.

Vanderbilt Hustler writer Zoe Abel wrote this personal perspective on her experience of loneliness as a student in 2022

A Translational Psychiatry study from 2021, “Mental health and music engagement: review, framework, and guidelines for future studies,” which was written by several Vanderbilt researchers, among others, is here.