Editor’s Note: Vivek H. Murthy served as United States Chief Medical Officer for Health and is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.” Alice T. Chen is an internal medicine specialist and served as Executive Director of Doctors for America from 2011 to 2017. The views expressed in this comment are those of the authors. See more opinions on CNNe.com/opinion.
(CNN) — As the US faces covid-19, its economic consequences, 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 complains of symptoms of depression or anxiety, three times more than the results of a similar survey conducted in the first half of 2019.
It is not surprising that times of crisis affect our well-being. People experience mental health problems due to economic recessions, natural disasters, or other collective trauma. The increase in covid-19 cases earlier this year may explain why a federal crisis hotline experienced an 891% increase in calls received in March compared to the same period last year.
To make matters worse, a critical way 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 profoundly detrimental to our mental and physical health.
The tragic deaths of American blacks by the police, and the ensuing fight for racial justice, have added another layer of anguish that is compounded by the fact that American and Latin American blacks are three times more likely to contract covid -19 and twice as likely to die from the disease.
They are also more likely to do essential work that cannot be done from home and puts them at higher risk for covid-19 infection. Mental distress will continue as infections and hospitalizations in the US increase in new communities.
Those of us who do not experience severe acute symptoms from the stress of the moment are still affected in other ways. We may find that we are more tired than usual and more likely to lose our temper. We may eat more junk food and find it more difficult to focus on work and school.
How can we deal with this wave of pain and mental stress that floods so many of us? To be sure, we must address the immediate challenges by organizing an effective response to the pandemic, providing financial aid to those who are struggling with the situation, and offering empathetic leadership to confront the systemic racism that has so long disfigured our country.
These times have also highlighted the urgent need to review our damaged 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 actually pay for mental health services on a par with physical health services, expanding funding for preventing suicide, addressing persistent labor shortages by training more mental health professionals, and reducing the stigma that prevents many from seeking help.
But there is a more fundamental obstacle to our mental health and well-being that is more difficult to see, but essential when facing the problem. In our fast-paced, mobile and globalized world, we have allowed one of our most precious sources of security, resilience and health to weaken: our relationships with each other.
Over the past five decades, the US has experienced a decline in social capital, the network of social relationships, based on shared values and norms, that give us a sense of community and support. We have fewer close friends. We belong to fewer community associations and places of worship. We have less trust in each other.
Loneliness is surprisingly common, especially among teens and young adults. The physical estrangement and isolation by the covid-19, in addition to the recent outbreak of police brutality and racial injustice, threaten to exacerbate the sense of separation between people at a time 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 impact of mortality associated with loneliness is similar to that observed when smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
On the social level, our weakened connections can make it harder for us to have honest conversations above political and social divisions, which in turn makes it harder for us to come together to face daunting challenges such as inequality, climate change and a global pandemic.
There is one way we can use this moment of extraordinary pain and stress to improve our mental and physical health: We must rebuild and prioritize our relationships with each other. Doing this requires us to reorient the cultural lenses through which we view ourselves and others.
The values of the consumer society (efficiency, wealth, professional success) and social networks (sensationalism, rhetoric of us against them, organizing life to make it seem perfect) are not working for us. This often makes us feel inadequate and unworthy, which in turn makes it difficult for us to be open and vulnerable with others, key ingredients in building healthy and strong relationships.
Instead, we must find ways to elevate our most enduring values: kindness, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and reflect them in our decisions and in the way we define success.
Do we measure our children’s potential by their test scores or do they make others feel seen and loved? Do we measure our success by how much we have, whether it’s more status, more wealth, more “likes” and retweets? Or do we celebrate our efforts to build strong families and communities that work best for everyone?
During this time when many are struggling, there are small steps we can take that can make a big difference. We can start by thinking of a person in our lives who may be scared or alone and making an effort to support them, either by listening carefully or offering a home-cooked meal.
We can incorporate uninterrupted time with our loved ones in our days (even 15 minutes can make a difference). We can store our devices and give people our full attention during conversations. We can look for 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 the virus has devastated, it can give us an opportunity to reevaluate our lived values and re-prioritize our relationships with others.
Many Americans are rediscovering the richness of family dinners and spending more time with children – challenging as it can be at times – leading some to wonder if our highly programmed lives are always worth it.
King Arthur Flour, which established its Baker’s Hotline hotline in 1993, has seen an increase in phone calls from people who are looking for baking tips. Some are simply calling to speak to a real person, giving us an idea of what we lose when we replace face-to-face interactions with web searches.
We have talked to managers who discovered that trying to understand the difficulties faced by their staff at home and establishing ways for employees to request and receive help from each other is to help build a prosperous and productive workplace, challenging the idea that we are Better when we rigidly separate our personal and work lives.
Better policies are essential to improve our mental health and well-being. But politics ultimately flows from the culture and values that shape our decisions. This is our time to refocus our lives and our country around a simple but powerful creed: putting people first. The covid-19 is our opportunity to re-engage, to recognize that human connection is the foundation for greater health, endurance, and satisfaction.