Is there a loneliness problem in The Roaring Fork Valley?
How loneliness and social isolation is impacting the Roaring Fork Valley, according to local experts.
Three years ago, COVID-19 emerged, straining our health-care systems, social fabric, and economic stability. Loneliness became a necessary companion to lockdown, as we socially isolated ourselves for the health and well-being of our communities.
Some lost loved ones, their jobs, and, for many, their sense of community. We all may have forgotten what it’s like to live in “precedented” times.
The implications of the pandemic are still unraveling as we begin to navigate a post-pandemic world, as the infection still spreads.
While our social systems are bouncing back, many are still engulfed in a world largely digitized with the rise of remote work and social media.
Headlines from news outlets across the country, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have claimed we remain in a “loneliness epidemic.”
Local experts like Jarid Rollins, clinical social worker at Mid Valley Family Practice, and Michelle Muething, executive director at Aspen Hope Center, agreed that loneliness is a problem in the valley, but both said they were reluctant to label it an epidemic.
“I leave the word epidemic to the CDC,” said Muething.
Rollins said loneliness was a hidden experience of many patients well before COVID-19 even emerged.
Before 2020, Mid Valley Family Practice asked patients to fill out a screener with different variables of loneliness. They found intimate-relationship loneliness — individuals with a perceived lack of close friendships or a romantic partnership — was the most common loneliness experienced by those in their clinic.
“So they may have good friendships with people that they can go do stuff with but don’t necessarily feel safe to be to go deeper into that relationship,” said Rollins. “That’s something that I think holds still holds true in our area.”
Another notable finding from that study was that medical providers underestimated the experience of loneliness their patient or client was undergoing, he said.
Impacts of loneliness and social isolation
Loneliness is a symptom of the human experience, one that is subjective but can have serious implications on an individual’s mental and physical health.
According to The National Institute of Aging (NIA), loneliness is the “distressing feeling of being alone or separated,” whereas social isolation is the “lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly.”
A study from NIA suggests that prolonged loneliness or social isolation can bring similar health risks as an individual who smokes 15 cigarettes a day.
Muething said residents of the Roaring Fork Valley do have a few risk factors for prolonged loneliness or social isolation.
Living in an area that is less densely populated, particularly areas with long winters, can lead to higher rates of social isolation, she said.
In addition, financial barriers can lead to heightened rates of loneliness.
“Maybe we have less interaction because we have less finances to take us places,” said Muething. “When everyone’s going to dinner, we don’t have the money to do that; or everyone’s going skiing, and we don’t have money for a ticket; or everyone’s gathering in Carbondale, and we don’t have money for gas.”
Rollins noted that long work hours, coupled with long commute times, can also present barriers to social connection.
One of the largest contributors to higher rates of loneliness that he finds in his clinic is the turnover rate of people living in the valley.
“You formed this relationship with somebody and then in a year and a half, they’re gone, or two years, they’re gone,” he said. “That happens again and again to people.”
Ways to get connected
If you’re struggling with loneliness or social isolation, noticing how you’re feeling is the first step, Muething said.
From there, spend time thinking about what it is you like to do and find ways to immerse yourself in to spaces with people who share similar interests, she advised.
While living in the valley can present obstacles, we also live in a valley of rich opportunity for connection.
“We live in a town with a lot of really amazing things and a large variety of things to do,” said Muething. “If you spend a little bit of time — if you’re sick and tired of being lonely — research ways for you and what’s available that could help you get connected.”
Working on your current relationships may also help to further connect you to others, Rollins said.
“Work on your intimate relationships first and find gratitude in those,” he said.
If you find yourself feeling stuck and struggling with negative thoughts, seek the support of a trained professional.
“If you’re stuck on a that core belief that ‘I don’t deserve those connections’ or ‘I am not worthy or not valuable,’ then that’s when you would go really talk to a therapist about those about that belief and trying to get unstuck from that that thinking system,” he said.
To reach Kristen Mohammadi, call 304-650-2404 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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