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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    Conn. leaders launch campaign to tackle loneliness epidemic

    Americans are living through a deadly epidemic. The condition? Loneliness.

    Surveys have found that more than half of the country’s adult population reports feelings of loneliness and social isolation, two factors that, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, can raise the risk of premature death by 29%, and increase the likelihood of developing heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, substance use disorder and other illness.

    In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz met with state commissioners Tuesday to announce the launch of a social connection campaign that aims to combat loneliness through prioritized funding, pro-connection policies, digital reform and intentional collaboration between agencies, federal programs, nonprofit organizations, private partners and municipalities.

    Loneliness, an issue experts say has impacted the country’s elderly and disabled population for decades, saw a new level of government interest after the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already festering crisis in youth mental health.

    “At the Department of Children and Families, we see too often children who are hurting,” DCF Commissioner Designee Jodi Hill-Lilly said.

    In 2022, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner recorded 16 suicide deaths among youth between the ages of 10 and 19 in Connecticut.

    Hill-Lily said that among Black teens, attempted suicide rates jumped 80% between 1991 and 2019.

    Hill-Lily described available data on the youth mental health crises as “sobering.”

    Referencing a 2021 study of Connecticut high school students, Hill-Lily said 36% of the students surveyed “indicated that they felt sad and hopeless,” 28% “reported that their mental health was not good most of the time, or always,” and 14% “indicated that they seriously considered attempting suicide In the last 12 months.”

    Hill-Lily said DCF has adopted programming geared towards connection and a concept of “relentless engagement” with agency-involved youth. Their “mantra,” Hill-Lily said, is “that seeking help is actually a sign of strength.”

    Department of Veteran Affairs Commissioner Ron Welch said the DVA has adopted similar messaging as the agency tackles loneliness among veterans.

    Welch said Connecticut is home to 170,000 veterans between the ages of 17 and 102, many of whom face difficulty reintegrating into civilian life due to lingering medical problems, behavioral health needs, interpersonal challenges, substance use, unemployment and other issues.

    Welch said many veterans in the state feel that those who have not served lack an understanding of the “unique experiences and challenges” faced by Connecticut’s veteran community.

    “They no longer try to explain; they shut down and they move on,” Welch said. “Many will do the best they can to fit back into everyday life, but end up suffering in silence and isolating themselves from others.”

    “We really need to make sure the message is clear: Asking for help is by no means a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength,” Welch added.

    Department of Aging and Disability Services Commissioner Amy Porter said that while loneliness and disconnection can affect people at any age, it is important to recognize that groups, particularly those who face barriers, are disproportionately impacted.

    Porter stressed the community-led efforts this work will require.

    “It takes all of us to be able to reach out, reach across, and check-in,” Porter said.

    Since July, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy has introduced two bills to address the loneliness epidemic at the federal level, an issue he described as “one of the most serious, misunderstood problems facing America today.”

    State leaders Tuesday said they hope to piggyback on Murphy’s efforts and continue to raise awareness.

    Bysiewicz said Connecticut’s social connection campaign will cultivate “a culture of connection” in the state.

    “We are going to work with our local communities to promote social connection, and we are going to prioritize funding to programs that increase social connection,” Bysiewicz said. “We want to engage our municipal leaders to get them to work with us.”

    As part of the campaign, Bysiewicz said she hopes to adopt new pro-connection policies and establish a resource directory for those feeling lonely in the state.

    Bysiewicz added that the executive branch will “continue to work to reform our digital environments, which were ironically created to promote social connection, but are also making folks in Connecticut feel lonely and also unsafe.”

    In remarks Tuesday, Lamont said “Social media is fundamentally antisocial and creates this sense of isolation and reinforces, sometimes, a lot of worst instincts.”

    “Sometimes you ought to just turn off the damn phone, talk to a friend, talk to a parent, talk to a brother and sister, be with a classmate,” Lamont said.

    For a time, Lamont said he thought loneliness was COVID-19 related, describing “a short-term sense of isolation and loneliness,” brought about by stay-at-home and social distancing orders.

    “I think it’s something much more profound than that, and it’s been happening for a while,” Lamont said.

    He highlighted programs designed to get chronically absent students back in school, peer mentorship programs and meal services that foster connections with the elderly.

    Lamont said he hopes continued programming will rebuild a sense of community, belonging and connectedness that has diminished in modern times.

    “When I was growing up, maybe 10% of people lived alone. And today, it’s now over 30% of people (that) live alone,” Lamont said.

    Lamont said Connecticut’s social connectedness crusade is about being a “part of something bigger than yourself (and) being willing to listen.”

    “It really does take a village,” he said.

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