According to the World Health Organization, social isolation is comparable in risk to smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. The Harvard University Study of Adult Development, known as the longest study on human happiness, found that there is a strong link between well-being and having meaningful, positive relationships. The pandemic was a clear reminder of the importance of connection and the impact of social isolation and loneliness on mental health. We are social beings, so it is not surprising that relationships support our health and well-being. However, this fact is often overlooked in our treatment of health, including mental health, which treats individuals and their illnesses.

There are signs of a shift in thinking with greater attention to the need for solutions that increase social connections. Japan, South Korea, and the England have attempted to systemically address loneliness with strategies such as appointing a government minister responsible for addressing the issue. Another example is the movement of social prescribing. Countries around the world, including Canada, are promoting a model that encourages medical professionals to “prescribe” activities such as volunteering, or community-based groups for gardening, cooking, or dancing. Pilot studies have demonstrated that social prescribing can support overall health and well-being.

For decades, family service agencies have seen the impact of meaningful relationships on well-being. It is at the core of what we do. We recognize that loneliness is not just about access to a social network. It can be the result of an early relationship experience or a previous trauma. A lack of secure attachments in childhood can result in social anxiety, and an inability to initiate or maintain healthy relationships. In addition, loneliness is not just about a lack of social connection, people in relationships can still feel alone.

Family service agencies work with individuals, couples, and families to end loneliness. We help people heal the wounds of their traumas and histories of hurt. It is from this healing that relationship skills can be built, and then the confidence to take the risks needed to create a healthy social support network. In addition, we provide counselling that helps individuals, and their loved ones, strengthen their current relationships.

There are many different reasons for loneliness, and therefore different solutions. We get that! Both the opportunity, and the ability, to create meaningful relationships are needed to reduce the loneliness epidemic. We make that happen, for thousands of Ontarians every year.

Susan Somogyi Wells, MSW, RSW, MBA