For years, I traveled alone in remote rural Sub-Saharan Africa. A social entrepreneur with a crazy mission to stop the death toll of AIDS. At some point, my board of directors asked me to purchase Kidnap & Ransom Insurance. The mere thought freaked me out and I declined. It would never occur to them that what I feared and dreaded most was walking into my hotel room, alone. I wasn’t concerned that someone would be there. On the contrary. It was knowing that no one would be. Night after night, I walked into my hotel room, alone.
You don’t have to be a traveling executive to feel alone. But, alone does not mean loneliness. Boredom during lock-down or quarantine does not qualify for loneliness either. Loneliness is a serious emotional situation and it is akin to physical pain.
Last week, a beautiful and clearly talented 31 year old, committed suicide by hanging himself in a Tel Aviv park, right after hitting send on a Facebook post, detailing the intolerable sense of loneliness he felt. Looking at his profile, one would never guess. He worked for a successful tech company then converted to teaching kids. He completed a marathon in February and traveled the world while his ‘friends’ rooted for him on social media. In his parting post, he clearly emphasized strong family love and support. And yet, his loneliness must have reached unbearable heights with the social isolation demanded of us during the COVID outbreak.
A few years back, well before COVID-19 shook things up, I took a deep dive into the topic of loneliness. From academic research to in depth interviews with various experts in preparation for a TEDx talk on loneliness among the elderly. The original trigger was my grandmother, after an important wake-up call. In all honesty, I never thought my learnings would be applicable on a global scale, to people in all walks of personal and professional life.
What surprised me in my research for the TEDx talk was that loneliness is in fact the root cause, not necessarily the outcome, of many mental and physical disorders. It’s as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and twice as dangerous as obesity. Loneliness leads to a clinical depression, which pushes healthy people even further away.
The suicide committed last week broke my heart. It made me realize that a person suffering from chronic loneliness could be hidden right before my eyes, but I won’t see him or her. It made me hypersensitive to reaching out to people that I haven’t spoken to in a while. People that see my TEDx always thank me, because it immediately triggers a phone call to their Grandma, but in the COVID-19 era, and in general, we need more than that.
Alleviating loneliness does not require a syringe or a pill. There is no silver bullet. It requires a conscious effort to see invisible people, create meaning for those who have lost it and offer a sense of community and belonging to those who need it. In other words, it “simply” requires our collective awareness and hyper focused attention.