What a Lonely World Can Learn from the Addiction Recovery Community
By Jeremiah Gardner
NOTE: This was originally published for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
It’s encouraging to see a prominent voice like the U.S. Surgeon General elevate what the addiction recovery community has known for generations — that social connection heals.
To kick off national Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Vivek Murthy proposed a national framework to rebuild social connection and community in America, declaring: “We Have Become a Lonely Nation. It’s Time to Fix That.”
This is familiar territory for those with the experience or knowledge of addiction. Many people with substance use disorders, including those we treat at Hazelden Betty Ford, feel alone and isolated. Loneliness can both fuel and be a symptom substance use.
In fact, the relationship of substance use to loneliness is so close that we often say addiction is a disease of isolation and that the antidote is connection. For as long as anyone can remember, people with substance use disorders have found sustained healing in their connections with others. It’s the magic in Twelve Step fellowship, group therapy, peer recovery support, family services, and caring treatment communities — a key feature of quality, comprehensive care. In addition to providing medical care, we help people nourish connections with their peers, their family and their innermost values and spirit.
Though the Surgeon General does not sufficiently draw parallels between addiction and loneliness, recovery and connection, or families and connection, he does set the table for integrated solutions by emphasizing in general terms—and by admirably attesting through his own personal experience — that there is tremendous healing benefit in social connections.
Technology is now paradoxically contributing to greater isolation. We’re living more hybrid lives. There’s less fellowship in places like churches, malls and town squares. We’ve traded fewer, more intimate and meaningful relationships for more, but thinner, digital relationships. We alienate ourselves even further by inevitably comparing our actual lives to the distorted depictions of everyone else’s online.
Hazelden Betty Ford President and CEO Dr. Joseph Lee posits that the loneliness issue is driven by even more. Putting it in a bigger frame, he says it’s a symptom of society increasingly prioritizing and valuing convenience and short-term rewards at the expense — often unwittingly — of investing in longer-term well-being.
The pandemic accelerated our loneliness trend and exacerbated our overall substance use and mental health crises. But one silver lining may have been that the world grew a little more empathetic because everyone experienced what it’s like to feel more isolated, lonely and disconnected.
The Surgeon General amplified and reflected that growing empathy with his high-profile advisory, stating very clearly that we need strong, meaningful human connections to cope in this modern world. According to his report, loneliness is associated with greater risk for all sorts of life-shortening conditions — not just addiction, depression and anxiety but also obesity, cardiovascular diseases and many others. He says loneliness can be as harmful long term as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
This troubling trend is one of many reasons we’ve expanded our mission at Hazelden Betty Ford to emphasize mental health and family services even more. We know everyone is struggling in one way or another, and that we all can benefit from therapy. We’re aiming to empower recovery and well-being for all — whether you’re dealing with loneliness, substance use, depression, anxiety, relationships or some tangled-up combination. Unsure what’s holding you back in life: the door is open. And there’s hope inside, starting with the hope of connection.
The addiction recovery community has paved the way for this moment — providing years of living proof that connection heals. Now, as the nation confronts the epidemic of loneliness, public officials like Dr. Murthy — who also issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health in 2016 — can and should lift up the service-minded recovery community as a source of hope and help for the nation.
Jeremiah Gardner is director of communications and public affairs for the nonprofit Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.