The Benefits of A Blended Approach to Loneliness

Updated on March 1, 2024

It’s no secret that loneliness is a significant public health crisis. In fact, this past year the Surgeon General declared loneliness an “epidemic” that’s just as harmful to our health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

When it comes to addressing loneliness, we’re up against some formidable challenges. Social isolation brought on by the pandemic, coupled with the impacts of social media, loss of community spaces, a dearth of accessible mental health resources, and more have all contributed to rising rates of loneliness. 

So, how can we combat this crisis? New technologies, ranging from mental health apps to AI chatbots, “virtual pets” and more, offer promising results. But when used in isolation, technological interventions have limited impact. The adoption of a blended strategy that leverages both human and technological interventions offers a more effective solution to this complex issue.

What is loneliness?

We’ve all experienced loneliness in our lives from time to time. Unfortunately, however, frequency and severity of loneliness are on the rise in the United States. Some studies suggest that nearly 60% of the U.S. population feels lonely on a consistent basis.

Despite its pervasiveness, loneliness often goes undetected, even in severe cases. That’s because, contrary to popular belief, loneliness is not the same as physical isolation. Loneliness can strike anyone who feels that they “don’t belong” – even if they have many close personal connections like friends, family members, and coworkers.

If loneliness goes untreated or unacknowledged for long, it can develop into “chronic loneliness.” Chronic loneliness is a serious condition that, similar to depression or anxiety, causes very real chemical changes in the brain. Chronic loneliness can have a major impact on a person’s daily life, and often results in something I call “stuck in mud”, or the feeling of not being able to reach out to others for help. This is why it’s critically important to address loneliness swiftly and offer options for self-management.

While human-to-human interaction is vital to addressing the loneliness crisis, emerging technologies present an exciting opportunity to provide more safe, accessible, and scalable care. Here are the ways that human providers and technology can complement one another:

Finding the Right Care Partner.

When it comes to addressing loneliness, focusing on human-to-human compassion and empathetic care is key. Unfortunately, many people hesitate to reach out to friends and family because they don’t want to be a burden or don’t think anyone will understand. A third party, like empathetic peer support or a certified mental health care provider, can make those who are lonely feel more comfortable disclosing the true nature of their feelings. 

Because many lonely people feel that they’re not understood, it’s critical to connect them with a provider or peer support who has similar life experiences. Pairing people of similar backgrounds – whether it’s from a demographic standpoint or through shared lived experience – can help the patient feel validated, affirmed, and that they’re not alone in whatever circumstances they may be going through.

That need for real human connection is why technology, including AI and machine learning, can’t ultimately solve loneliness on its own. However, tech-based virtual care options can leverage AI to better serve patients, ensure quality care, and connect them more rapidly to providers and peers. Without a geographic barrier, even if a patient doesn’t have someone who has a similar background in their community, they will still be able to get the empathetic care they need. 

Filling in the Gaps of In-Person Care with Emerging Technological Tools.

Moreover, having access to free online tools, resources, and even online chatbots can be a lifeline for those who need to fill in the gaps of their in-person care. These resources, while they may not be as comprehensive as having a conversation with an empathetic peer or mental health provider, can help people self-manage in between appointments.

Consider, for example, that many lonely people feel their lowest at night, when a mental health provider may not be available to speak with them. For others, they may only be able to see their provider every other week (or even less frequently). Online support helps them self-manage in the intervals.

It’s important to emphasize here that for those with severe loneliness, having access to a human provider is crucial. Relying solely on AI or other chatbots has proven inconsistent and unreliable in connecting these individuals to crisis resources when necessary.

Improving Access. 

Social determinants of health (SDOH) challenges also increase the risk of loneliness dramatically. For those who aren’t able to put food on the table or don’t have health insurance, affording mental health resources is often out of the question. Free online tools can be a huge help for these people until they’re able to find a provider who is within their financial reach. 

Access to appropriate mental health resources is an issue across the board – regardless of income. Nearly half of all Americans live in a mental health workforce shortage area, meaning trained mental health professionals may be hard to come by. Many insurance providers also fail to cover mental or behavioral health. Online resources, as well as telehealth visits, can be a great option to get these patients the care they need.

On the provider end, AI and machine learning tools can be incredibly helpful in finding community resources like food banks, domestic violence shelters, free addiction counseling, and more in the patient’s local community. This is crucial for providers who may not be physically in the same city or town as their patients but want to help them build in-person communities.

Loneliness is a pervasive crisis that’s unfortunately not going away any time soon. If we are to successfully combat it, we will need to use all of the resources at our disposal – combining the capabilities of technology and human interaction to provide the most well-rounded and expeditious care possible. I remain hopeful that as tech continues to evolve at a rapid pace, we will develop increasingly creative and effective ways to incorporate it into our care practices. That said, there will always be a need for human connection. Particularly when it comes to solving loneliness, there is no substitute for the power of empathy and compassion.

Screenshot 2024 03 01 at 6.46.45 AM
Cindy Jordan

After witnessing a family member’s mental health crisis, Cindy co-founded Pyx Health with Anne Jordan in 2017. As the CEO, Cindy continues to fuel innovation and growth. She leads the company on its mission to effectively address the health crisis of loneliness and social isolation.