Writer’s curiosity sparks look at an unusual determinant of health: loneliness

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr

Photo: Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr

Examining the social factors that can determine health sometimes means taking an unusual look at a subject, peeling back the layers to find something that really highlights how disparities affect people’s actual lives.

That is what veteran journalist Amy Ellis Nutt did in an extraordinary recent story about loneliness as a public health hazard. Appearing on the front page of The Washington Post, the piece takes a deep dive into how increasing isolation around the United States is affecting the health of many. In a new “How I Did It” piece for AHCJ, Nutt explains how she came up with and developed this story idea.

“Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more,” one expert told Nutt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who  covers mental health for the Post.

Nowhere in the story did Nutt specifically cite loneliness as a “social determinant of health.” She didn’t have to. Loneliness may not be on the CDC’s official list of social determinants of health, but it’s clear after reading Nutt’s piece that it is a striking public health issue. And certainly more traditional SDOH – income, housing and where one lives, transportation – can affect the likelihood of someone feeling, and being, isolated.

The online version of Nutt’s main story also is accompanied by separate looks at loneliness in music and movies.

1 thought on “Writer’s curiosity sparks look at an unusual determinant of health: loneliness

  1. Marie Verna

    In behavioral health care, we’ve worked hard to help policymakers understand the direct correlation between psychiatric illness, poverty and isolation. Sometimes our language expresses that a person is, in fact, “isolating” because of depression or severe, clinical anxiety. Other times, in our efforts to help people reintegrate into their communities and regain their lives, we don’t yet have ways to give them the courage and fortitude to do so. With people who are working hard on addiction, we have limited ways to help them find friends who aren’t currently using or to find places to go where they won’t be preyed on by drug dealers. Many of them report having to stay in their homes to control their behavioral.

    Loneliness is a critical reason that people managing behavioral health issues struggle to fully recover. Thank you for writing the story.

    Marie Verna
    Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care

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