U.S. Surgeon General Visits Camden County College to Address Loneliness Epidemic


The nation’s top-ranking public health official urged young people to ‘strengthen their social muscles, and seek connection with others in small moments.

By Matt Skoufalos | November 28, 2023

Actor Daniel Ezra fields a question from the crowd at Camden County College. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Armed with a message of hope, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy visited Camden County College on Tuesday to speak about the public health crises of profound loneliness and social isolation — and why young people are most at risk for them.

Although seldom discussed as compared with other wellness concerns, the issue of loneliness “has real public health consequences,” Murthy said, including increased risks for physical ailments such as heart disease, stroke, dementia, and premature death, along with emotional challenges like depression, anxiety, and risks of self-harm.

“Loneliness and isolation are more common than diabetes,” he said. “It’s more common than obesity in America, which we recognize is a public health challenge. And the numbers are much higher among young people.”

Hands shot up in the crowd when the surgeon general asked whether those in attendance know someone who’s struggling with loneliness. He encouraged them to find ways to connect.

“Our social connections with one another are vital for our mental and physical health,” Murthy said. “It’s important for people to recognize when a friend might need help, and be able to ask for help when they do need it.

“Conversations about mental health can be potentially lifesaving,” he continued. “We can do a lot by simply checking on our friends; by choosing to show up for our family members. You’re not just offering them help, you’re reminding them that they’re not alone.”

Young people are especially susceptible to the impact of social isolation, Murthy said; not only those who came of age during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic lockdowns, but also those overwhelmed by ubiquitous digital technology, including social media. He urged students to “have some spaces where we put technology aside.

“Protect your time sleeping, from an hour before you go to bed,” he said. “Protect your time in-person with other people.

“It’s okay and important to prioritize the social connection in your life,” Murthy said. “This is as important as any other skill or piece of knowledge that you may learn; a linchpin to your success later in life.”

Students at Camden County College attend a lecture from the U.S. Surgeon General. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Actor Daniel Ezra, who joined Murthy for the conversation, said that it’s natural to have appropriate periods of loneliness in life, especially during times of transition.

“The point is,” he said, “it shouldn’t last.”

Ezra, whose acting career has taken him from his birthplace of Birmingham, England, to London, to the United States, said his solution was “to create a tribe of people to support me.

“You only need three or four friends,” he said. “You’ll find your life is far richer because of that.”

For Ezra, that small circle includes his brother, who, like himself, is a natural introvert. By taking the time to check in with one another weekly, they’ve begun not only to look forward to those conversations, but have benefited from the interactions as well, he said.

“It’s brought him and I a lot closer,” Ezra said. “He’s helped me see certain situations in a different way.

“A lot of people need to build a support system,” he said. “I’m learning as I get older, it’s just someone to encourage you.”

Rebuilding ‘the social muscle’

Rather than trying to fix a friend’s problems, or forcing a grand gesture of sympathy, a lot more good can be done in small moments of human connection, Murthy said.

Checking in on a friend via text, taking a moment to say hi to somebody in a public setting, or simply making yourself available for conversation by eliminating distractions like ear buds and cell phones are all effective ways to rebuild “the social muscle” that strengthens human connection, he said.

“A muscle that gets weak over time has to be built back up,” Murthy said. “Our social muscle can be rebuilt. Small actions are all helping to build our muscle and our confidence about our future selves.”

He urged students to find those opportunities to build meaningful interactions with the people in their lives, moment by moment. The surgeon general’s “We Were Made to Connect” challenge invites Americans to try three types of outreach — express gratitude, extend support, ask for help — once a day, for five days.

“You can do it in just one minute,” Murthy said. “Taking an active connection over five days will perhaps help you continue those connection habits; start to build that social muscle. At the end of five days, you will feel differently.”

Murthy’s words seemed to find particular resonance with the crowd as he asked them to send a brief message of thanks to someone who’s helped them through a rough time, and to turn their cell phone flashlights on after they’d done so.

In no time at all, the room was aglow.


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Nineteen-year-old business student Emily Barahona of Blackwood said she attended Tuesday’s event because mental health issues have always been important to her.

“I was really interested in getting to see this,” Barahona said. “I was curious about what [Murthy] had to say about mental health, and being able to find better ways to be better and feel better.”

The surgeon general’s observations also resonated with Barahona’s friend, 18-year-old Tahreem Akhtar of Blackwood, especially his remarks about the discrepancies in college-aged students’ struggles with transitions into adulthood.

It’s difficult to follow friends’ feeds that are “full of partying and showing they’re having a good time [while] some people are stuck, and not knowing what to do in life,” Akhtar said.

Feeling the disconnect between those perceived experiences and their own can lead young adults to compare their circumstances, and spiral into depression. Even though Akhtar said she knows that’s an unhealthy way to look at things, “I feel like it’s a human trait,” she said.

Thirty-year-old Josh Castellanos of Hi-Nella, who is studying political science, said he was drawn to the opportunity to see a high-ranking government official like the U.S. surgeon general for the first time.

“I’m always interested to hear government officials speak for themselves; to hear what they have to say,” Castellanos said. “When they reach out to attend a public event, I like going to participate.”

It’s also significant to hear America’s top health official addressing concerns of loneliness and social isolation as a matter of public welfare, he said.

“I don’t think we would have an event like this 20 years ago,” Castellanos said. “There’s a new focus on mental health and wellness.”

“All of us want to lead connected lives,” Murthy said. “We evolved to be inter-dependent people. We want a world that’s less angry, less anxious, and more joyful and hopeful. We can start to create that world, step by step.”

College students in New Jersey have access to free telehealth services via the UWill service. For more information, visit Uwill.com or download the app.

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