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On May 3, 2023, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, sounded the alarm about an invisible health crisis. He stated, “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives. Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connections the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”
The surgeon general called for a culture of connection to address the isolation crisis. SHIRE has incorporated this guiding principle in our Wellness Circle program since 2010. Wellness Circles have demonstrated the power of group support in helping individuals take charge of their health. Community members come together to learn about the importance of healthy eating, movement, stress reduction, and obtain knowledge they need to be informed partners with health professionals. SHIRE makes available a team of peer educators who engage Wellness Circle participants, encouraging them to maintain their involvement and serving as health coaches and supporters during and following each Wellness Circle series. They are an indispensable part of the support network we make available to community members.
Wellness Circle participants reinforce each other, share their challenges, celebrate their successes, and motivate each other to make the changes necessary to attain wellness. SHIRE encourages them to take what they have learned and create new communities of support with their families, their friends, and their neighbors, so that even after the program is over, they can create support networks to keep them focused on health and wellness.
We at SHIRE were not surprised by the Surgeon general’s advisory. Participants in our Wellness Circles have shared their feelings of anxiety, isolation, and loneliness that had been aggravated by the pandemic. They have testified that coming together in Wellness Circles has lifted their spirits and changed their outlook. One group member said, “I feel like I see friends every time we meet.” Another participant spoke for many when she said, “I was so lonely before we started talking on Saturdays, I feel like y’all are family.” These are examples of the social connectedness that will help overcome the devastating impact of loneliness and isolation on an individual’s physical and mental health.
The surgeon general has made several recommendations to address the public health crisis of loneliness and isolation. He has called for the investment of resources in community organizations that promote the coming together of community members. SHIRE could not agree more. Just as foundations and government agencies have invested substantial resources in addressing social determinants of health, such as housing, education, and employment, an even greater investment should be made to support community organizations that promote social connection for health. We need to define social connection as perhaps the most important social determinant of health, because it focuses on the role of community in fostering self-empowerment, health, and wellness.
We know that Wellness Circles produce benefits in the form of improved health outcomes and positive beneficial lifestyle changes. An equally important benefit is the building of relationships and group support for the participants’ wellness journeys.
SHIRE welcomes the opportunity to partner with corporations, government agencies, foundations, and other nonprofit organizations to help build a “culture of connection” in the DC community. Our model works and we offer a timely response to the surgeon general’s call to action. For more information about SHIRE, please visit our website at www.shireinc.org.