Loneliness has made the headlines a lot over the past few years as the pandemic highlighted the impact of isolation on our wellbeing. A 2023 advisory, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” summed up a wealth of evidence that loneliness increases risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death, likening its effects to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. In it, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy described its far-reaching impact: “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. … Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being.”
No one is immune from the effects of isolation, but those dealing with serious mental health challenges, like members of the Well Community, are often especially well-acquainted with loneliness. They face isolation to an especially high degree—a reality that can have a particularly profound and negative impact.
Because of their illnesses, people living with conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression often struggle to form and maintain friendships and to find communities where they are accepted and welcomed. In place of kindness, they’re met with fear and discrimination.
In addition, many of the struggles that frequently accompany and compound mental illness, such as housing insecurity, poverty and unemployment, further contribute to isolation as they make it more difficult for individuals to find circles of social support. As a study published in 2023 in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing that examines these factors explains, “people living with mental illness experience elevated levels of social isolation and loneliness leading to poor recovery and quality of life.”
Isolation is both a byproduct of mental illness and a factor that erodes individuals’ ability to pursue stability. In addition to the many ways it harms physical health, loneliness can magnify the brain’s response to pain or stress and leaves those who are struggling without support in seeking help and adhering to a treatment plan. In addition, greater loneliness has been linked to a higher number of hospitalizations related to mental health and to a greater risk of suicide.
In short, loneliness cultivates mental unwellness and is an incubator for suffering. Michael Gerson, who was an opinions columnist for the Washington Post, stated this powerfully in a 2019 piece:
“Human beings are fundamentally social creatures who find mental health only in the context of supportive relationships. In isolation, naturally depressive people are more likely to enter downward spirals of despair. The inner voice that normally whispers worthlessness can become a shout of self-condemnation. And it is dangerous when there are no other voices — no kinder voices — to contradict it.”
However, when kinder voices are present, those who are struggling receive messages of hope that shine light into their despair and remind them they are not alone. The power of these voices is why the Well Community exists. We seek to be a place of belonging and friendship for people who are so often ignored or ostracized because of life-altering mental health conditions. At the heart of everything we do, from providing case management to distributing clothing to holding holiday parties, is the goal of addressing members’ needs for connection and support through meaningful relationships and chronic compassion.
At the Well, our members form friendships with others who understand and care, and they’re able to be themselves without fear of judgement. They listen to each other, pray for one another and enjoy the blessings of simply being together, just as they are. One member, Sue, describes it this way: “At the Well, people don’t judge you. We get to be who we are. You walk in the door, and you feel the love.”
That love is a powerful force that contradicts the negative impact of stigma and unkindness our members so frequently face outside of the Well. It tells them they belong, they are cared for and they matter. As member Carl says, “Here, they make us feel at home.”
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