Confronting Loneliness and Isolation

By ALPA Staff

The winter holiday season can elicit mixed emotions in us, ranging from joy to feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s not uncommon for pilots to experience a sense of disconnection when secluded in hotel rooms on holiday layovers while their families are home celebrating. However, problems can develop when loneliness and isolation become consistent, recurring feelings, and public-health officials have acknowledged the ongoing presence of these concerns as part of a growing trend.

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public-health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in an advisory issued earlier this year. “We must prioritize building social connection the same way we’ve prioritized other critical public-health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance abuse disorders.”

The advisory, titled “A Framework for a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection,” reported that the physical consequences of loneliness and isolation can include a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increase in the chance of stroke. Those affected are also twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety, along with other health concerns.

It’s important to note that while loneliness and isolation are similar in nature, there’s a subtle difference between the two. The National Institutes of Health explains, “Loneliness is the distressing feeling of being alone or separated. Social isolation is the lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly.” In other words, you may live alone and not feel lonely, but you can feel alone even in the presence of others.

Across age groups, individuals are spending less time in person together as compared to two decades ago. This phenomenon, which has been attributed in part to the proliferation of social media and the recent pandemic, is having a profound effect on younger generations’ ability to initiate interaction and effectively communicate with one another.

While some may be inclined to downplay the seriousness of these emotional states, the sense of disconnection, in extreme cases, has prompted some individuals to vent their frustrations through heinous acts. While most who experience these feelings don’t act out in such a manner, there’s more the health-care community can learn about the effects of these conditions and appropriate treatment.

To curb this mounting sense of isolation on a nationwide scale, Murthy proposed a national strategy to advance social connection consisting of six foundational pillars:

  • Strengthening social infrastructures in local communities by designing environments that promote connection.
  • Enacting proconnection public policies.
  • Mobilizing the health sector, enabling health-care providers to assess patients for these risks.
  • Evaluating society’s relationship with technology and reforming digital environments.
  • Broadening our knowledge through research, and
  • Building a culture of connection in the informal practices of everyday life.

Murthy asserted, “If we fail to do so, we’ll pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we’ll further retreat to our corners—angry, sick, and alone.”

Fortunately, ALPA members have resources they can turn to. The Association provides a variety of member support programs though the Air Safety Organization’s Pilot Assistance Group, including Pilot Peer Support. Volunteers are available 24/7 to listen and offer confidential, nonjudgmental support to ALPA members in the United States and Canada.

Peer support programs have demonstrated a more than 80 percent success rate in resolving common stressors in personal, professional, and social situations without the need for professional help. If professional mental health support is needed, getting assistance early will reduce the likelihood of medical certification issues later and, in many cases, is not disqualifying. The International Civil Aviation Organization’s book Fitness to Fly: A Medical Guide for Pilots offers excellent proactive strategies for optimizing general mental wellness.

Need Advice?

ALPA pilots may contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS), ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, to confidentially speak to one of its aerospace medicine physicians about health and medical certification issues. Office hours are Monday–Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., mountain time. Additional information is available on the AMAS website. These services are available to all ALPA members at no charge.

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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