Social connections are not just nice to have—they can significantly affect our health and well-being. Inspired by creative approaches abroad, communities across the United States are taking steps to reduce social isolation and increase residents’ sense of belonging.
It’s only January and already, I’m counting down the days to spring when warm weather will arrive. The long, cold months of winter can be isolating—the snow and subzero temperatures make it difficult to get out and about. Winter is particularly tough for children who can’t go outside to play, and for newcomers from warmer climates who are not accustomed to the cold. For people who don’t have meaningful social connections, the cold weather season can exacerbate the isolation they face year-round.
Social isolation is a serious problem for many. It can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts. Social isolation can impact our health in other ways too—by escalating unhealthy habits, stress, lack of sleep—and putting us at higher risk for coronary heart disease and stroke.
Fortunately, there are many creative ways in which communities across the United States are tackling social isolation and building a sense of community.
Who Experiences Social Isolation?
Those who don’t struggle with this challenge might be surprised at who experiences social isolation. But for others, it’s easy to be in a crowd and feel alone. Conversely, you can live on your own and be incredibly connected. While solitude is a matter of choice, social isolation happens when you feel disengaged from others; when you feel you have nobody to call on if you need help.
Social isolation can result from a major shift in one’s life course—such as moving to a new town, having a baby, or falling on hard times. Many people feel marginalized or like they don’t belong because of their gender identity, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Even young people with lots of online friends and relationships can feel disconnected when the only people they feel they can talk to are miles away.
When we issued a call for proposals to tackle social isolation in 2017, we really captured people’s attention and imagination, received hundreds of applications, and countless inquiries. Clearly, social isolation is an issue that is keeping many of us awake at night.
Here are some examples from our grantees who have taken inspiration from overseas and are working to increase meaningful social connections and a sense of belonging in their communities:
Bringing public life to winter cities: The public realm offers a unique opportunity to create socially connected and physically active communities. But the lack of winter-friendly design and programming in our cities discourages residents from spending time in public spaces during the cold season. With support from 8 80 Cities, three American cities are devising creative solutions—such as heated bus stops and indoor snowball fights—to turn public spaces into places to gather, socialize, and exercise during the cold season. They will be drawing upon lessons from cities in Canada and Nordic countries, including Iceland and Norway.
Strengthening social networks for young people:Bullying, suicide, depression, and substance abuse rates are unconscionably high among our young people. Recognizing that social isolation is a significant risk factor, an Icelandic program has dramatically decreased smoking, drinking and drug use among teens by getting young people to spend more time with friends and family. By investing in organized sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, Iceland’s cities were able to help kids find ways to feel more socially connected and part of a group. They also educated parents about the importance of talking to their kids about their lives, knowing who their friends are, and keeping their children home in the evenings. The program transformed family life and changed the way children are raised in Iceland. Now, the United Way is bringing this program to young people in the Matanuska Susitna Borough of Alaska.
Connecting families living in poverty to the community:Families living in poverty often have limited social networks and are often cut off from the support and opportunities that could positively impact their health and well-being. Saúde Crianca (Child Health) helps families living in Brazil's working-class neighborhoods, known as favelas, break barriers to social inclusion—connecting them to resources such as food, job training, and housing assistance. The organization also holds monthly coaching sessions that offer psychological counseling, health education, and emotional support. The University of Maryland School of Nursing is adapting the Saúde Crianca program for poor families with children under age 3 that live in the Upton and Mondawmin neighborhoods of West Baltimore.
Creating a peer support network for Latino LGBTQ youth: Latino LGBTQ youth can experience rejection from family members, religious communities, and peers. This threatened sense of belonging can lead to depression, chronic stress, attempted suicide, sexual risk, substance use, and exposure to violence. Inspired by successful efforts in Brazil and Peru, 4-H at Oregon State University is training young leaders in its Outreach Leadership Institute to become allies of their LGBTQ peers. They will do this by hosting workshops where these leaders use telenovelas (soap operas) to role play scenarios in which they must address stigma and stereotyping.
Improving social connections for incarcerated and returning citizens: The U.S. prison system is grounded in the belief that to facilitate public safety, society must isolate people convicted of crimes from their communities, families, and social supports. But this can backfire when people return home after serving time—considering the data showing that adults in the United States are re-incarcerated at much higher rates compared to other countries. Corrections agencies and service providers are beginning to rethink the role they play in helping recently incarcerated people enhance their social connections, drawing upon successes in Europe. In New Jersey, the Jewish Family Service of Atlantic Countyis implementing a program that supports people who are incarcerated—or have been recently released—to form new relationships—and maintain existing relationships with friends, families, and local community members, as appropriate to their needs and wishes. Additionally, leaders from corrections agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts are working to transform the prison system for young, incarcerated adults to help them stay or get connected to their family and community, and are better prepared to return home.
Weaving a Tighter Social Fabric
We all need meaningful social connections and to feel like we belong. This is especially true for those most susceptible to social isolation—individuals and groups that feel they don’t belong because of their gender identity, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Others are new mothers; immigrants; those living in rural areas; people with disabilities; and individuals and families struggling to make ends meet.
So what can each of us do to increase meaningful social connections for ourselves, family, and others in our community? How can we ensure that our families, friends, and neighbors have the connections and relationships they need to thrive?
We can start by gaining a better understanding of the importance of social connections to health and well-being. Health providers can collect information about patients' social connections during visits and then work with them to develop practical strategies. City planners can shape public spaces as places for social interaction. Schools and educators can teach students how to build and maintain friendships and relationships, and strengthen their social and emotional skills. Community-based organizations, religious congregations, and social service providers can devise programs that encourage socializing and provide the supports needed—from transportation to coaching—for people to participate.
As you make your new year’s resolutions, think about how meaningful social connections can affect well-being and health. Reach out to others who could use a helping hand or who might need someone by their side. And remember—feeling connected to family, friends, and community can help all ofus to thrive.
Maryjoan D. Ladden, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a nurse practitioner and former RWJF staff member who worked on leadership for better health and global ideas for U.S. solutions. During her time at the Foundation she focused on building the capacity of leaders and the wider workforce to collaborate across sectors, organizations and communities to promote a Culture of Health.