The Loneliness Epidemic: Research, Influence and It’s Effect on Everyone

The Loneliness Epidemic: Research, Influence and It’s Effect on Everyone

Categories: AACC BLOG

The Loneliness Epidemic: Research, Influence and It’s Effect on Everyone

by Mark Mayfield, Ph.D.

I could see their lips moving, but the words were muffled. I leaned in, trying harder to hear what they were saying, even though I knew exactly what was being said. It felt like I was in one of those out-of-body experiences you see in the movies—the scene where everything around the main character slows down, and everyone around him fades. The character’s internal dialogue starts as he tries to make sense of the unfolding situation.

For me, it was a very surreal and familiar situation. I was, yet again, get- ting bullied. This time my tormentors were getting creative with their insults. “What’s with your face, Mayfield? Did you run into a meat grinder?” or “Who dressed you today… your mommy?” But on that day, something was different—that day they were emboldened, and it got physical. I was standing in front of my locker in the empty hallway of my middle school. All the other kids and teachers had already gone to class. My eyes darted back and forth to see if anyone was coming to save me, but there was no one to be found. As I refocused on the three boys in front of me, I knew no one was coming to my rescue. “Stuff him in the locker!” they laughed. I braced myself for the impact as I was crammed into my locker. The door closed, and I was completely and utterly alone.

Reflecting on this story 27 years later, I can still connect to those feelings of being alone. While sitting here writing these words, I can feel my chest tightening, my stomach beginning to turn, and the palms of my hands getting a little sweaty. It is amazing how the body remembers these moments of distress. As a counselor, I can make sense of these somatic feelings, work through these emotions, and take action. However, this is not the case for so many others. Loneliness has become commonplace, a part of the fabric of the human race, and an all-too-familiar feeling that continues to linger. But it is not new.

Since the beginning of time, loneliness has been used as the lie of the enemy. In Genesis chapter three, the serpent confronts Eve about the fruit of the tree. Eve states, “It’s only about the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, don’t even touch it or you’ll die.’ The serpent told the Woman, ‘You won’t die. God knows that the moment you eat from that tree, you’ll see what’s really going on. You’ll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil’” (Genesis 3:2- 5, MSG). The serpent’s lie was planted. Where Eve understood physical death (apothnesko in the Greek), the serpent was talking about spiritual death and separation (thanatos in the Greek). At that moment, when both Adam and Eve ate the fruit, loneliness and separation entered into the world and has been an antagonist in our stories ever since.

The Effects of Loneliness

I have been a counselor for many years, and was a youth and family pastor before becoming a therapist. In my time working closely with clients, I have always wondered if there was a common thread to the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual distress linked to the different presenting problems that entered my office. Through my experience and subsequent research, loneliness has become that common thread that connects the following four paradigms.

1. Mental Health: There has been a significant in- crease in depressive symptoms among high school boys and girls between 2012-2015. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21%, and girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by 50% (Twenge, 2016). The Anxiety and Depression Association of America indicated that 40 million adults 18 and older (18.19%) struggle with anxiety, 15.7 million (6.7%) of those 18 and older will have a major depressive episode this year, and 2.8 million six to 17-year- olds will have a major depressive episode this year. That is 58.5 million individuals, or 35.8% of the population, that report struggling with anxiety and depression.

2. Emotional Health: I realize that mental and emotional health are joined at the hip. However, I think it is important to differentiate the two for a moment. Emotional intelligence and acuity directly relate to the mental health of an individual and vice versa. If you have been paying attention to our world these past two decades, the Emotional Intelligence (EQ) of the greater populous is waning, and it is directly affecting our ability to cope and connect. For example, think back to when President Trump was elected in 2016. Universities had to accommodate students who were falling apart because they did not have the emotional intelligence to process the loss and disappointment properly.

3. Physical Health: 647,000 people will die from heart disease, and one in four, or 606,500 people, will die from cancer this year. Why are these numbers so high? During my research, I stumbled across a concept called pre-disease pathways or the biological influences and related links to behavioral, psychological, and social impacts that precede morbidity (sickness) and mortality (life expectancy). Loneliness and isolation can predict both morbidity and mortality, even after accounting and con- trolling for health factors such as nutrition and exercise (Hawkler & Cacioppo). Loneliness directly contributes to inflammation or excitation of chronic illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc. This connection means that loneliness is a major pre-disease pathway.

4. Spiritual Health: John 10:10 (MSG) says that “a thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy….” This is the continuation of the lie of loneliness and separation that started in the Garden of Eden. If Satan can convince us that we know better than God, if he can persuade us to buy into the shame and guilt of our sins, and if he can get us to buy into the lie that we can do it or fix it ourselves, then he is able to separate us from connection to both God and others. Thus, deepening and widening of the crevasse of loneliness.

So What Do We Do?

The remedy seems simple, but it can take a lot of work, intentionality, and vulnerability. To combat the insidious like of loneliness, we must help people discover three things:

1. We must help them discover their IDENTITY: The lie of loneliness distorts the truth of to whom we belong. Therefore, we must walk alongside those who cross our paths and remind them that they belong to God.

We must offer them a safe place—one free of judgment or harm so they can easily express themselves.

2. We must help them understand and step into their PURPOSE: An individual with a set purpose is a force with which to be reckoned. When we truly know whose we are, we then have the ability to operate freely in what we were designed and created to do.

3. We must help them maintain HOPE: Hope is a powerful resource. Without it, we are left wandering aimlessly. Hope becomes a guiding light and a point of reference when we get off course.

Each of these steps needs to be made intentionally. In order to combat loneliness and instill identity, purpose, and hope, we must ensure that we are actively seeing people for who they are and what they might be facing below the surface—both mentally and emotionally. We must offer them a safe place—one free of judgment or harm so they can easily express themselves. Finally, we must provide a place that will deliver comfort and peace. All I wanted as a middle school student was to be seen, loved, valued, and known for who I was. I wanted someone to take the loneliness away. Let’s be that person for others and point them to the One who truly can be our Prince of Peace.

This article originally appeared in Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 24 No. 3. Christian Counseling Today is the flagship publication of the American Association of Christian Counselors. To learn more about the AACC, click here.

Mark Mayfield, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, counselor, professor, and suicide survivor. He has extensive experience with adolescents and families, focusing on self-injury and suicidality. Dr. Mayfield is currently the Founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which serves nearly 20,000 appointments a year. He is also an Assistant Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Colorado Christian University. Dr. Mayfield is a contributing author to several different magazines and Web sites. His first book, in collaboration with Focus on the Family, Help! My Teen is Self-injuring: A Crisis Manual for Parents, can be found at https://www.focusonthe- His second book, The Loneliness Epidemic (NavPress), will be available in the fall of 2021.