Seven Serious Problems In the Surgeon General’s ‘Epidemic of Loneliness’ Report

By Tom Gilson Published on May 11, 2023

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued an urgent report last week describing a severe epidemic of loneliness in the United States. I’ve read the full report, and I’m encouraged to see the topic getting this attention. I only wish I thought this report would do any good. It won’t and it can’t because it missed at least seven core reasons loneliness and isolation have skyrocketed over the past several decades.

The bad news is that we are suffering a severe problem of isolation, disconnection, and loneliness. The other other bad news is that this report gets the most important reasons wrong. That’s no surprise: Our current administration doesn’t dare own up to six of them. These nationwide changes in values and “virtue” either came about through progressive social engineering, or serve progressives’ purposes.

Besides, this is a government initiative by a government that doesn’t understand the problem, doesn’t know how much it’s responsible for creating the problem, and wouldn’t admit it if it did know. So don’t expect any good to come out of Washington on this. Not that we ever do.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that some of this we can solve locally. Not all of it, since some of it is either set in policy or entrenched in the culture, but some of it.

These seven points come in no particular order, as it’s hard to say which of them matters more, except on the bookends. The first and the last are the most important of them all.

1. Disrespect for Marriage

The report mentions marriage exactly twice: Once with statistics on how marriage numbers declining, and once to mention how COVID interrupted marriage, birthday, and graduation ceremonies. It’s absence is stunning, a shocking, jaw-dropping oversight β€” except I don’t believe they merely overlooked it. This comes from the same party that gave us the misnamed “Respect for Marriage” act. Respect, indeed.

Silence speaks loudly here: If loneliness is a problem, the government’s official position is that finding someone who’ll love you for the rest of your life, someone you can love in return, isn’t part of the answer.

The word “divorce” isn’t in there anywhere, either. Silence speaks twice; and this time the message seems to be that relationships that fall apart have no impact on loneliness. Kids never get lonely for the parent they can’t stay with. It doesn’t help much if they see parents working through differences to stay strong together.

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Cohabitation as a stand-in for marriage is no help in the long run, by the way. It’s a maybe relationship: “Maybe we’ll stay friends. We’ll have sex while it lasts, and maybe when we separate, even though we’ve been so close to each other, it won’t tear us apart emotionally.” Promiscuity does the same, only more often and with more people. It’s about building meaningful, beautiful, loving connections for maybe an hour or two at a time — which means it’s a lie people live with out each other.

Marriage is hard. It’s amazingly worthwhile when you can work it out, but for some people, failure is the best they know. If that’s you, I grieve for you. It’s hard, but not hopeless. And not irrelevant.

2. Childhood, Contained

When I was a boy, I could walk out the door almost any afternoon and find a dozen friends in the neighborhood to play with. Granted, those were baby boom years, but contraception and abortion since then have created a world of lonely kids in small families in lonely neighborhoods.

Further, kids’ play time is mediated and controlled by adults, whether in “play dates,” organized sports, or at school. Kids make friends, but not as naturally, and they hardly ever have to solve relationship/friendship problems without adult intervention. They don’t learn how to make friends for keeps, the way kids should learn it.

3. Fear

My childhood “neighborhood” reached to about a half-mile radius. Parents today don’t even dare let their children stand at the end of the driveway and wait for the school bus by themselves. Their child might get stolen, or (more likely) they might get reported for putting their child out for any passing kidnapper to run off with. It’s hard to make friends in a world so “dangerous” you can hardly cross the street until you’re old enough to drive there.

I can’t prove this, but I’d be willing to bank on it: This over-protection has resulted in slightly fewer stolen children, but a lot more growing up so fearful and isolated they commit suicide. Not a good tradeoff.

4. Fractured Relationships as Social Policy

Racism has always separated people and fractured potential relationships. Today’s “anti-racism” policies make it even worse. “Intersectionality,” in particular, splits people into tiny, fragmented, isolated non-communities of insiders.

Outsiders, those who lack minority status get shame instead. Shame divides, it frustrates, and it raises anger. There’s no connection to be found anywhere in that.

Homosexual and transgender pushiness are part of the same problem. Activists control the conversation: You agree with them (outwardly at least), you fight, or you hide. Their power move by itself creates divisions within culture.

5. Technology

Social media divides, especially social media on the portable small screen, the one people carry around to interact with when they could be talking with people instead. The surgeon general’s report recognizes that clearly, but that’s little credit to it, since everyone knows it.

Study after study has shown how religious participation boosts mental, emotional, and social health, but nothing in this report supports any move toward greater religious life in America.

The report tells of many things “we” must do to limit technology’s harm on us, but it doesn’t say who “we” are. If it’s the government, I’d rather “we” kept our hands off. Mostly, anyway. Not every regulation would be awful. I’d love to see some porn purveyors busted, and I want U.S. tech secrets kept safely here where they belong. Otherwise, the less the state tries to control tech, the better.

6. “Tolerance”

The nation’s chief virtue, “tolerance,” is a farce. It’s most easily achieved in isolated silence. Outward displays of “acceptance” leave room to hide who you really are on the inside. There’s no true personal connection in that.

For a true, uniting virtue, look to Christian love instead. Jesus taught love for all, including friends, enemies, and everyone in between. This love never means hiding. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing. It does mean caring.

7. Religion-less Society

The report recognizes religion as a means for gathering people into communities, but says no more about it. That’s crazy. Study after study has shown how religious participation boosts mental, emotional, and social health. I’ve seen firsthand, in my human resource work with a large Christian mission agency, how following Christ strengthens marriages, families, and friendships. But nothing in this report supports any move toward greater religious life in America.

The state has no business establishing any religion, but it could certainly disestablish anti-religious secularism as the reigning default ideology. That could open more doors for religious belief, and do lonely people a world of good.

This One Is On Us

The surgeon general has identified a serious national problem — which is also a serious individual problem for many of us. I wish he had also identified more of the serious causes behind it. Most of his recommendations are good, depending on who takes responsibility for them, but there’s too much missing and too many distortions. If the nation did everything he recommends we’d still be divided, fragmented, isolated, and lonely.

It’s on us to take the next right steps. If you’re lonely, I suggest you find a great church whose leader and members truly seek to know and follow the Source and greatest example of true love, Jesus Christ. Join them in that pursuit: Commit yourself to Christ. Find a small group to join, and see if you can make a friend or two there. Realize that even Christ-followers are affected by life in this same fragmented world, so friendships may not come instantly even there. I wish I could say it was easy and automatic everywhere. It’s definitely the place to start, though.

We’ve all got a lot of catching up to do, and it’s not going to be easy. Just don’t expect the surgeon general to be any help.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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