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Battling loneliness doesn't have to be done alone

Your Health Matters

As we wrap up Mental Health Awareness Week and yesterday’s World Mental Health Day, it’s important to talk about one of the most common social issues impacting our health today – loneliness.

According to a grant recently awarded to Meritus Health, research shows that loneliness and social isolation impact life expectancy as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness does not always mean isolation, according to Kristie Carbaugh, team lead for the Meritus project to tackle the epidemic of loneliness in the county.

“Some people are lonely even in a crowd,” says Kristie. “During the past year, Meritus Health patients ranked loneliness as the most common social issue affecting their health, even above hunger and transportation needs.”

Most if not everyone experienced social isolation and lack of companionship during the COVID-19 pandemic that has been in the community for nearly two years; however, with fewer restrictions on social distancing and more people getting the vaccination for the virus, there is now an opportunity to tap into existing resources right here in Washington County and the surrounding area.

How to fight loneliness?

Initially, a phone buddy will reach out to someone struggling with feeling alone or socially isolated. If a phone call is not the best way to connect, a community health worker would look to visit those in need in person, in their home, with the necessary COVID-19 precautions in place so everyone remains safe.

“We can begin to reach out to our patients who are experiencing loneliness and make a connection with them,” says Kristie. “It’s imperative that we invest in this work, because when a person struggles with basic necessities like companionship, their ability to manage chronic health conditions can be deeply impaired.”

From there, those existing programs and organizations in Washington County and the surrounding area will be the next points of connection. Kristie says there are “so many out there offering help.”

Holidays do not always help

As the holiday season begins in any year, feelings of loneliness and despair are produced for some. In this time of COVID-19, gatherings and activities may not look the same as they have in years past, which could invite in social isolation and more opportunities to feel lonely.

Julie Kugler-Bentley of the Meritus Behavioral Health team reminds us that no matter the time of year, it is important to get enough sleep and watch what food and drink we put in our bodies. Skimping on sleep makes you forgetful, boosts your appetite for all of the wrong choices and can increase depression. Alcohol consumption can also increase feelings of stress and depression, so self-isolation to self-medicate is not the answer to feeling alone.

Meritus Health patients have the opportunity to self-report on social issues affecting their health as part of a questionnaire through their patient portal in preparation for or at the start of their visit to a primary care provider. A screening tool in the electronic health record then allows for collection of this voluntarily offered information, data to help health care professionals problem solve.

This Your Health Matters article provided by Meritus Health first published in The Herald-Mail and HeraldMailMedia.com in October 2021.

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