As a new substitute school nurse, I’m constantly caught off-guard by the number of students who come into the nurse’s office with emotional and mental health issues. These students all say the same words, “I have a tummy ache”—but 75% of them don’t.
In the elementary school playground and hallway, there are rainbow colored Buddy Benches. If someone is sitting on one of these benches that means that they are feeling lonely and need a friend, and students are encouraged to invite and include. With loneliness, anxiety, and depression on the rise, this practical strategy is an effective method for increasing belonging. But it’s not enough.
There are no Buddy Benches in my town, but I can think of a few days in the last 3 years when I would have liked to sit on one. Every Saturday, I go out for a solo dinner night where making eye contact is a huge challenge. Everyone is either with someone else or looking at their cell phones. The title of Sherry Turkle’s book says it all—we are indeed Alone Together. Sometimes, entire families sit down to dinner, and I want to cry as all 6 to 8 people fall into a blue hazed zombie-like trance. I grieve for all that’s lost when we stop looking into each other’s eyes. I suspect our biology is insidiously mutating and the number of mirror neurons we possess has decreased. This would explain the downward trend in empathy over the last 30 years.
Social isolation is a predictor of functional decline and mortality and is associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Loneliness is physical—it can be measured in a lab. John Cacioppo discovered higher levels of epinephrine in the morning urine of lonely people. Just watch. Soon there will be a billing code for loneliness and this social plague will follow the same predictable path as obesity. Loneliness will become another treatable commodity with new drugs like Dejectacillin or Forlornazole.
This week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy remarked that “Loneliness poses a serious threat to Americans’ physical and mental health.” Half of Americans feel lonely and only 16% say that they’re attached to their local community. Here’s where nursing unleashed could make all the difference.
In our current system, patients are perceived as a source of revenue. In a system that is designed to profit from illness and disease, interactions are transactional. A 7-minute office visit is not enough time to build a relationship or share your story. Our patients feel this. We feel this. And it contributes to moral distress because we pick up the emotional slack and there’s not enough time to do what we want to do—connect.
Nursing has so much more to offer because our focus is the relationship. We can propose another path because we know our sacred patient bond is frequently more healing than any procedure or therapy could ever be. Nurses have been trained to create relationships that foster connection through therapeutic conversation.
We need to put nurses back into the community to foster belonging. They know how to mend the torn social fabric of our country. What if nurses took entire communities on as their patients—as the employers and not the employee? As the administrators of health? We could create community care plans and heal our nation by providing the genuine caring that’s a hallmark of our profession and focusing on the social determinants of health that cause illness.
Nurses are, by far, the ideal profession for mobilizing and reversing the epidemic of loneliness in America.
Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, MN, is an internationally recognized patient safety and health culture expert. Kathleen has spoken on leadership, communication, patient safety, and peer relationships to hospital executives and nurse leaders for twenty years.
All of her books come from her passion to understand the stories of nurses. Her books, “Ending Nurse to Nurse Hostility” and “Speak Your Truth” illuminate our relationships with our peers and physician partners. She is also co-author of “The Dauntless Nurse” which was written as a communication confidence builder.
Kathleen is also a guest Op Ed writer to the Seattle Times and has been interviewed twice on NPR’s “People’s Pharmacy”. Her Tedx Talk calls for changing our belief system from a hierarchy to equality in order to keep our patients safe – and also explains how disaster thrust her into ‘the best profession ever’.
You can also find more information about Kathleen on her website, Twitter, and Facebook.
The views and opinions expressed by My Nurse Influencer contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.
Marche S. Is Facebook making us lonely? The Atlantic. May 2012. theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/308930
Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. 2023. hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf
Richtel M. The Surgeon General’s new mission: Adolescent mental health. The New York Times. March 21, 2023. nytimes.com/2023/03/21/health/surgeon-general-adolescents-mental-health.html?utm_source=convertkit&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=%F0%9F%98%9F+4+Ways+P%2Arn+Affects+Mental+Health+in+Youth%20-%2010786030