When listening to or reading the news, I’m often overcome by a feeling of helplessness. So many things happening, locally and internationally, are tragic. My brain spins around, grappling for something I can do to make a difference, to make things better. And while I have yet to discover how I can contribute globally, I have found many small ways on a local level to be useful.
Then the World Health Organization (WHO) reminded me of one of the easiest things that I – and you – can do to make our world a kinder, gentler place.
What was WHO’s reminder? And how can we all contribute?
In November 2023, WHO declared loneliness “to be a pressing global threat, with the US surgeon general stating that its mortality effects are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Feelings of loneliness and social isolation significantly increase our risks of depression, anxiety and suicide, as well as premature death from all causes. And while many of us assume that older people are more deeply impacted, a global Meta-Gallup survey, released in October 2023, indicates that nearly one in four people worldwide feel very or fairly lonely. The highest rates of loneliness (27%) were reported by young adults aged 17 to 29.
Societal impacts include an increase in physical illness and substance abuse, a reduced ability to learn, difficulties at work, and the breakdown of relationships.
As I read through this research I was reminded of the technology that supported me through the loneliest times of my life. They did occur, roughly, between 15 and 23. The most difficult was probably my first year of university. My parents had both died while I was in high school and when I left my hometown of Northern Ontario to attend the University of Ottawa, I was completely and utterly on my own. It was beyond scary and stressful.
I lived in residence that first year and fortunately made friends quickly. One of them, Kathy, somehow had a government number that could be used to make phone calls without incurring long-distance charges. (This is 1977. While discounts were available after midnight and on weekends, long-distance calls were about 50 cents a minute.) It became a standing joke that if anyone was looking for me, they’d find me on the phone. (Again, it’s 1977, so the phone was on the wall outside the communal kitchen.) I called my brother and sister and my best friends from high school. I know that those conversations, the sound of their voices and the laughter we shared, kept depression and anxiety at bay.
Today we all walk around with our phones in our pockets.
We always have the ability to make a call and inspire a conversation that will combat loneliness. And while it’s true that many young people don’t like to answer their phone, I’ve found it helpful to schedule the call first. Here’s what I say, usually by text: “Want to hear your voice and share some news. Let me know a time to call on Saturday that works for you.” Admittedly, I may have to ask this question more than once.
We have an abundance of tragedies surrounding us. The high rate of loneliness doesn’t have to be one of them. Make time in the week ahead to call someone – friend, family member, grandchild, neighbour. I promise the benefit will be mutual.
On a local level, I’m once again participating in The Coldest Night of the Year on Saturday February 24 here in Halifax. It is a walk that raises money for Soul’s Harbour Mission, which supports folks in our community who need our help. Some of them are hungry, more than a few hurting, and regrettably, some are homeless too. Adults, moms and kids, seniors and youth. This is my second year participating in this 5K walk and it is a lot of fun.
It would be great to have your support. If you are in the Halifax area, you can join our team, WeStepForChange. Or if walking, talking, laughing and telling stories on a winter’s evening doesn’t appeal to you, you can also donate to our team. Simply click on one of the two buttons in the top right-hand corner of our team page here to begin. And thanks!