Loneliness, Dr Ruth, and the US Surgeon General a Year Later


How can we fix our loneliness problem?


Fergus Coyle/AdobeStock


“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go Downtown…”

-Petula Clark, “Downtown” (1964)

As the lyrics of this popular 1964 song convey, loneliness is not a new problem. However, it seems clear that it has escalated in recent years.

Without any criticism whatsoever of our current Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and in fact both of us are recipients of the Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award, a year ago I wondered whether it was time for a psychiatrist to be Surgeon General in my column, “A Psychiatrist US Surgeon General: Social Psychiatric Prediction #3.” First of all, so much of health has an important psychological component. Then the COVID-19 pandemic produced all kinds of undue psychological symptoms. Historically, our country suffers from the intergenerational transmission of racial, homophobic, and sexual trauma. Moreover, the prevalence of mental disorders has been rising for over a decade.

Not long after that column, in early May, Dr Murthy sent out a new advisory for a national challenge which connects psychiatry with general medicine, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”1 Dr Murthy even named himself as one with such past suffering. Besides its psychological toll, loneliness is connected to various physical illnesses too, as dangerous as a habit of 15 cigarettes a day. Possible causes include the increase in technology to connect instead of in-person, a change that started well before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Loneliness is also a worldwide problem. A Meta-Gallup poll released on October 24, 2023, indicated that at least of a quarter of people felt undue loneliness.2

Dr Murthy recommended 6 foundational pillars:

  • Strengthen social infrastructure
  • Enact governmental pro-connection public policies
  • Mobilize the health sector to monitor loneliness
  • Find ways to reduce dependence on digital environments
  • Research the issue
  • Cultivate a culture of connection

Following his advisory, in November, New York State went further by appointing 95-year-old Dr Ruth Westheimer of sexual education fame to become the nation’s honorary ambassador for loneliness. In a November 9, 2024, the New York Times article, “Dr Ruth Saved People’s Sex Lives. Now She wants to Cure Loneliness,” Dr Ruth noted the parallels between sexual problems and struggles with loneliness.3 She and the governor did make a public service announcement of resources for loneliness during the winter holiday season. As to her overall plans, she said:

“The first thing to do is have the courage to admit you’re lonely.”

She herself admitted that she was lonely during the pandemic and recalled having written about feeling lonely in her childhood diary. She found the diary, which she started in 1945 when she was growing up in a Swiss children’s home during World War II.

Although she is not a psychiatrist, maybe we can think about her as a honorary psychiatrist, too. She is a “doctor,” having a Doctor of Education from Columbia. Yesterday was the International Day of Happiness. Who is a better teacher, model, and epitome of happiness than Dr Ruth?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.


1. Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The US Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. Office of the Surgeon General. 2023. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf

2. Maese E. Almost a quarter of the world feels lonely. Gallup. October 24, 2023. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/512618/almost-quarter-world-feels-lonely.aspx

3. Gilbert A. Dr. Ruth saved people’s sex lives. Now she wants to cure loneliness. New York Times. November 9, 2023. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/09/nyregion/dr-ruth-loneliness-ambassador.html

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