The Loneliness Epidemic & Other Stories

When I moved to Boston in 2017, I wanted to be a clinical psychiatrist. After working as a therapeutic writing facilitator, I was so intrigued by the thought of helping people heal that it became more important to me than being a novelist (plus no one was interested in a fictionalized account of the French Revolution, despite its cultural and political relevance). Add in my new job with Harvard Medical School, I realized there was a lot of growing I still needed to do before spending any more time as a student. My life had to start, so it did.

My desire to learn never went away, though. In 2021, I applied to and was accepted by Boston University’s Master of Social Work program’s clinical track. While it was exhilarating to have my professional experience validated by an institution, I turned down the opportunity because going to school for social work felt more like exchanging one skill set for another instead of strengthening my existing one. What I was looking for was someone to teach me how to legitimize my work as both a writer and a facilitator. There was no need to go to an expressive writing program because I had already put in the hours, had already read the books, had already recognized the inherent link between storytelling and mental health.

I’m delighted to tell you that I will be researching this link at Harvard Medical School’s Master of Science in Media, Medicine, and Health program this fall. That’s right, folks, she’s going to be a Harvard Gal.

Around the world, more and more people are suffering from the “Loneliness Epidemic.” A study conducted by the health insurer Cigna in 2019 found that 61% of Americans felt lonely. In 2021, the Making Caring Common Project with the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report that found that 36% of all Americans experienced “serious loneliness,” including 61% of young adults aged 16-25), which was defined as people feeling lonely most or all the time. These numbers are alarming. The consequences? Those who suffer from long-term loneliness or social isolation are more likely to suffer from increased risks for depression, anxiety, inflammation, heart disease, and addiction(1).

Because I did my “fieldwork” in an MFA program (i.e., ran a bunch of therapeutic writing courses in a bevy of communities), I have no frame of reference for qualitative or quantitative research methods outside of the student papers I read (and those papers proved that contextualizing data through story is the most powerful way to bring attention to health issues). I’ve spent my life gathering stories but have never had the opportunity to learn how to engage a larger audience.

This much is simple: humans need other humans to thrive, and I want to make a meaningful contribution in the service of alleviating this pervasive and utterly human affliction.

During my time in the MMH program, I want to examine the “loneliness epidemic,” its impact on mental and physical health in Gen Y and Gen Z (people aged 12-34), and how therapeutic writing and creative communities can act as “loneliness interventions.” To accomplish this, I want to pull from studies on the impact of loneliness and social isolation on health, collaborate with existing programs like the Marking Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explore the loneliness epidemic with experts like Julia Marcus, and design a project that acts as low-cost mental health care for marginalized communities.

I hope to launch my project Writers’ Haven as a nonprofit organization to go into any population with professionalism, knowledge, and empathy. I want to work with hospital personnel, recovering addicts, mourning parents, hospice patients, survivors of sexual assault, adolescents, refugees. I want to change the narrative around writing from “I have to be good at writing to write” to “Writing, any writing, is me expressing myself, and that is inherently good.” My goal is to bring this low-cost mental health care into any community, especially underserved populations, to help remove the stigma around mental health and empower others through creative expression.

In my heart of hearts, I want to write another book or film a documentary that examines loneliness in my people my age so we can start learning how to connect. I’m not sure where the next year will take me, but I am excited.

Things to read right now:

  1. Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Dr. Vivek H. Murthy
  2. A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion by Fay Bound Alberti
  3. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick

bam

  1. Weissbourd R, Batanova M, Lovison V, Torres E. “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It.” Making Caring Common Project. February 8, 2021. https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america

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