Editor’s Note: Vivek H. Murthy served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States and is the author of New York Times bestseller Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Alice T. Chen is an internal medicine physician and served as the executive director of Doctors for America from 2011 to 2017. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
As the US grapples with Covid-19, its economic fallout, and the continuing anguish of racial injustice, many of us are struggling with our mental health. A Census Bureau survey found that one in three Americans are now reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety – more than three times the rate from a similar survey conducted in the first half of 2019.
It is no surprise that times of crisis affect our well-being. People experience mental health challenges due to economic downturns, natural disasters or other collective traumas. The surge in Covid-19 cases earlier this year may explain why a federal crisis hotline experienced an 891% increase in calls in March compared to the same period last year.
To make matters worse, a critical way for us to reduce the spread of the virus is to physically distance ourselves from others – our family, friends, coworkers, and communities. This is exacerbating the already widespread problem of loneliness, which is deeply harmful to both our mental and physical health.
The tragic deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police — and the ensuing fight for racial justice — have added another layer of distress that is further compounded by the fact that African Americans and Latino Americans are three times as likely to get Covid-19 and twice as likely to die from it.
They are also more likely to have essential jobs that cannot be done from home and put them at higher risk of Covid-19 infection. As the US now sees infections and hospitalizations surging in new communities, the mental distress of it all will only continue.
Those of us who are not experiencing severe acute symptoms from the stress of the moment are still affected in other ways. We may find we are more tired than usual and more likely to lose our tempers. We may eat more junk food and find it harder to concentrate at work and school.
How can we address this wave of pain and mental stress that is washing over so many of us? To be sure, we must address the immediate challenges before us by organizing an effective response to the pandemic, providing financial help for those who are struggling and offering empathetic leadership to confront the systemic racism that has so long disfigured our country.
This time has also highlighted the urgent need to overhaul our broken mental health system, where only 43% of people who needed help received any treatment in 2017.
This means making mental health services more widely available through telemedicine and in-person visits; ensuring that insurance companies truly pay for mental health services on par with physical health services; expanding funding for suicide prevention; addressing persistent workforce shortages by training more mental health professionals; and reducing the stigma that keeps so many from seeking help.
But there is a more fundamental obstacle to our mental health and well-being that is harder to see but essential to confront. In our fast-paced, mobile, and globalized world, we have allowed one of our most treasured sources of safety, resilience, and health to weaken and fray: our relationships with one another.
Over the last five decades, the US has experienced a decline in social capital – the network of social relationships, grounded in shared values and norms, that give us a sense of community and support. We have fewer close friends. We belong to fewer communal associations and places of worship. We have less trust in each other.
Loneliness is surprisingly common, especially amongst adolescents and young adults. The physical distancing and isolation of Covid-19 – in addition to the recent flare of police brutality and racial injustice – threaten to exacerbate the sense of separation between people at a moment when we need more social support.
This has serious consequences for our health. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety as well as heart disease, premature death and dementia. It is also associated with a shorter lifespan. One study found that the mortality impact associated with loneliness is similar to that observed with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
On a societal level, our weakened connections can make it harder for us to have honest conversations across political and social divides, which in turn makes it tougher to come together to address daunting challenges like inequality, climate change and a global pandemic.
There is a way we can use this moment of extraordinary pain and stress to improve our mental and physical health: we must rebuild and reprioritize our relationships with one another. Doing this demands that we re-orient the cultural lenses through which we see ourselves and each other.
The values of consumer society (efficiency, wealth, professional success) and social media (sensationalism, us-vs-them rhetoric, curating one’s life to seem perfect) are not working for us. This often leaves us feeling inadequate and unworthy, which in turn makes it harder for us to be open and vulnerable with others – key ingredients to building healthy, strong relationships.
Instead, we must find ways to elevate our more enduring values – kindness, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice – and reflect these in our decisions and in the way we define success.
Do we measure the potential of our children by their test scores or whether they make others feel seen and loved? Do we measure our success by how much we have, whether that’s more status, more wealth, more likes and retweets? Or do we celebrate our efforts to build strong families and communities that work better for everyone?
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During this time when so many are struggling, there are small steps we can take that can make a big difference. We can start by thinking of one person in our lives who may be frightened or lonely and making an effort to support them, whether that’s lending a listening ear or offering to bring them a home-cooked meal.
We can build uninterrupted time with loved ones into our days (even 15 minutes can make a difference). We can put away our devices and give people our full attention during conversations. We can seek out opportunities to serve those around us, recognizing that service is a powerful antidote to loneliness.
These simple actions can change our lives for the better. When this action is taken collectively, it can help build a people-centered culture.
As stressful as the pandemic has been and as many lives as the virus has devastated, it may provide us an opportunity to reassess our lived values and reprioritize our relationships with one another.
Many Americans are rediscovering the richness of nightly family dinners and more time spent with children – as challenging as that can be at times – leading some of them to question whether our highly scheduled lives are always worth the trade-off.
King Arthur Flour, which established its Baker’s Hotline in 1993, has seen a surge in phone calls from people who are reaching out for baking advice. Some are simply calling to chat with a real person, which gives us a glimpse into what we lose when we replace in-person interactions with web searches.
We have spoken with managers who found that seeking to understand the hardships their staff faced at home and establishing ways for employees to ask for and receive help from one another is helping build a thriving and productive workplace, challenging the notion that we’re better off when we rigidly separate our personal and work lives.
Better policies are essential to improving our mental health and well-being. But policy ultimately flows from the culture and values that shape our decisions. This is our moment to re-center our lives and our country around a simple but powerful credo: put people first. Covid-19 is our opportunity to recommit to one another, to recognize that human connection is the foundation for greater health, resilience and fulfillment.