Accelerating Best Practices in Peer Support Around the World

Loneliness / Social Support

Judith Shulevitz, science editor for The New Republic, shares her new article on The Lethality of Loneliness.

You can also read more about loneliness in this recent New York Times blog: Shaking Off Loneliness.

From its roots in psychoanalysis, the study of loneliness has found a place in biochemistry, evolutionary biology, genetics, and public health research. We now know that loneliness causes illness, exacerbates other diseases, and hinders recovery from diseases. Loneliness has been linked to the development or exacerbation of physical diseases such as Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. One astounding finding showed that social isolation carries a higher mortality risk than smoking.

Recent findings in the United States may be signalling that we are already in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. Using the standard U.S. questionnaire, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, up to 30% of Americans report not feeling close to anyone. Some populations are especially susceptible to experiencing loneliness, such as retirees and older adults. For this population, loneliness can accelerate the decline of physical health vis a vis diseases associated with aging. A 2010 survey conducted by AARP found that over 1/3 of adults over the age of 45 reported being chronically lonely. As the population has aged, loneliness has become a growing public health concern.

Chronic disease self-management can be a daily struggle for people with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.  For these individuals, physical and emotional isolation is not only painful, but makes it difficult to manage their chronic illnesses. Peer support is a type of social support that directly addresses these feelings of isolation and loneliness. In fact, the emotional support provided by peer supporters is one of their most highly valued functions.

John Cacioppo, Professor at the University of Chicago and a leading psychologist on loneliness, believes that merely being in the company of other people is insufficient to protect against loneliness. For a person living with a chronic disease, a home visit from a healthcare worker may be both welcomed and beneficial, but professional visits have a clinical nature that restricts possibilities for emotional enrichment, deep empathy and understanding, and social acceptance. Peer supporters can do all of these things by building a relationship with the individual, making them feel like there’s someone out there that understands and cares about them.

Shulevitz’s thought-provoking article raises several interesting questions. For example, what is the differential impact of peer support on people with high and low levels of loneliness? Is there a pathway that links peer support, loneliness, and depression? Does peer support cause chemical or hormonal changes that signal a physiological reduction in the stress that’s associated with loneliness? As the science of loneliness develops, we would be curious to see how peer and social support can address this growing problem.

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