The Disease of Social Isolation

One of the most celebrated books on social capital is "Bowling Alone," by Robert Putnam that was released in 2000.  I remember reading this book and being taken by the powerful overview of social capital (relationships in our lives) and all the good things these do for us.  Putnam explored all the key studies and reviews and made a compelling case.

But one passage in the book caused me to pause and do something I don't normally do when I am reading an academic text - go to the references and sources used to make the point.  Putnam stated that as many people in the United States die from social isolation, than from all smoke related diseases and illnesses annually.  This statement seemed unbelievable, so I retreated to the sources and was amazed.

Then as I reflected more on the topic and it made sense.  Certainly we know that when people are isolated, or disconnected they are at more risk.  We hear PSA's on the radio and TV asking us to check in on elderly neighbors, especially in extreme heat or cold weather, to see if they are ok.  And we can all remember back to that horrific terror attack on the US on 9/11, and the powerful notions that we all felt - that we wanted to just go home and see if those we love were safe.  This experience, as visceral as it was, is another bit of evidence of how powerful social capital is in keeping us safe.

Now, it seems that public health groups are beginning to understand this notion.  I was at a meeting the other day when the speaker referred to the "disease of social isolation."  It seems that as we think about the risks of life, the simple framework of relationships go a long way.  If we can have campaigns to have people stop smoking, or to eat healthier, we should also have campaigns that look to reduce social isolation.

And this is where you and I come in.  Those of us fortunate enough to have developed those life altering relationships must broaden our thinking and actions to see that others, and especially those at risk of social isolation, have opportunities to engage.  All of us can help in stamping out the disease of social isolation!