The Silent Epidemic: Loneliness & Social Isolation

How Loneliness is Affecting Arizona’s Teens

“It should be as normal to ask about loneliness as it is to ask about school grades” – Gerine Lodder

A dangerous ailment is pervading our Arizona communities, threatening to increase risk of chronic illnesses, shorten lifespans, and cost the U.S. economy billions. This threat is not a rogue infectious microbe—it’s loneliness. Defined by the CDC as the feeling of being alone or disconnected from others, loneliness was labeled in a 2023 U.S. Surgeon General’s report as an epidemic. 

Social isolation (i.e., an objective lack of relationships and social support) has been a growing issue for adults and teens alike for decades due to factors like increased use of technology, longer working hours, and the dissolution of extended family networks as individuals move cross-country for new opportunities. But the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the loneliness trend, especially for children and teens, whose entire lives were suddenly confined to their bedrooms as they attended school online and otherwise engaged socially primarily through a screen. Though parents and caregivers were also often confined to home, this did not necessarily foster family connection, as they often needed privacy to complete remote work. While the confinements of the pandemic have since lifted, teens have been struggling to readjust to the social demands of their daily lives, and loneliness continues to take a toll on their physical and mental health.

Why loneliness is a public health concern in Arizona?

Human beings are naturally social, needing connection and collaboration to thrive individually and form thriving communities. When meaningful relationships are missing, health outcomes can deteriorate. For example, the CDC notes that pervasive loneliness increases risk for conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, addiction, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and dementia. The Office of the Surgeon General argues that inadequate social connection is as harmful as smoking fifteen cigarettes or consuming six alcoholic drinks per day. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in its 2020 report that scoring high in measures related to social isolation increases risk for earlier death from all causes.

Loneliness was labeled in a 2023 U.S. Surgeon General’s report as an epidemic.

For teens, feelings of loneliness can trigger a vicious cycle that increases risk for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Anxious teens may become fearful of social situations or making new connections if they are preoccupied with thoughts of rejection or a feeling that they don’t measure up to their peers. Teens struggling with depression may find maintaining healthy relationships to be too overwhelming, reinforcing their social isolation and its negative effects. For those whose symptoms continue to grow in severity, the risks of self-harm and suicidality increase. Suicide has become a leading cause of death among teens, with 12.7% of adolescents aged 12–17 reporting that they have seriously considered suicide according to a 2021 survey. Independent research source KFF reports that Arizona’s rate of suicide was higher than the national average in 2021, highlighting the relatively high risk of irreparable harm within our communities.

The unique impact of loneliness on teens

Though teenagers often wade through a sea of peers in crowded school hallways and extracurricular activities, they may be more susceptible than other age groups to social isolation and feelings of loneliness due to several developmental and environmental changes:

  • It is normal for teens to emotionally separate from their parents or caregivers as they grow toward independence and begin to value peer over adult input. But if they have not developed appropriate social skills to build and maintain connections, they can experience growing dissatisfaction with their social lives.
  • It is developmentally appropriate for teens to be self-focused, as they are forming their personal identity. But this process can prompt constant comparison with others, whether with in-person acquaintances or the vast array of perfectly curated social media profiles. Poor self-esteem can intensify feelings of loneliness, as teens are less likely to experience a sense of belonging when they feel they fall short of those around them.
  • While teens are developing the ability to self-regulate, situations beyond their control can create overwhelming emotional distress. Drastic disruptions to their environment—such as a change in schools or housing (homelessness), the loss of a loved one, or divorce—are thus risk factors for social isolation and feelings of loneliness.

How can we support lonely teens?

As a parent or concerned adult, it is easy to feel helpless when a teenager we love shows signs of increasing loneliness or its associated mental health concerns. But there are strategies for providing compassionate support.

  1. Stay present. When teens attempt to push parents or caregivers away, the natural urge may be to withdraw to avoid conflict or hurt feelings. But teens desperately need emotional support, and your continued presence will signal to them that no matter how old or independent they become, they can trust you to provide warmth, connection, and advice. Healthy attachment to a caring adult is among the strongest predictors of teen resilience, which includes the ability to navigate life’s unpredictable challenges in a healthy way.
  2. Encourage connection to community. While loneliness, depression, and anxiety can feed vicious cycles that reinforce one another, service to one’s community can create a virtuous cycle of belonging and connection. Seek local opportunities, such as service projects, to engage your teen and facilitate new relationships in the community. Studies show that those who participate in local service are more likely to feel a sense of belonging to their community, which in turn fosters a sense of pride and a desire to continue meaningful contributions. 
  1. Consider teen treatment options. When helping a struggling teen in Arizona, consider targeted mental health therapy, which can provide unique insights and support to both you and your adolescent. Treatments like individual or family sessions with a trained therapist and group therapy sessions with similarly struggling peers prioritize social connection, providing relief from loneliness while fostering new coping skills. For teens who need a higher level of care for more pervasive mental health challenges, such as persisting depression, anxiety, PTSD, or substance abuse, residential treatment in a local group home may be the best fit.

Social isolation and loneliness are growing concerns for teenagers and can have lasting negative impacts on multiple measures of adolescent health. However, by providing opportunities for connection and belonging as well as age-appropriate mental health treatment, we can mitigate the risk of negative outcomes for the teens in our care.