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Chris Murphy wants America to be less lonely. He thinks government can help

2022 FILE: U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) assures students he is fighting for them during a roundtable discussion with Alfred E. Burr Middle Schoolers on youth mental health and ways to improve support services in schools, Hartford, Connecticut.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
2022 FILE: U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) assures students he is fighting for them during a roundtable discussion with Alfred E. Burr Middle Schoolers on youth mental health and ways to improve support services in schools, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., knows talking about loneliness is not the most natural fit for a lawmaker.

But he knew he was on to something after receiving an overwhelming response from constituents to an op-ed he wrote for a conservative news website.

“I got more feedback from that piece in Connecticut than anything else that I’ve written in the last five years,” Murphy said about his op-ed for The Bulwark. “And so back home, I immediately can tell that people really were crying out for somebody in politics to talk about the issue of loneliness.”

Nearly a year since its publication, Murphy has become increasingly vocal about the feeling of loneliness and social isolation in America — the underlying reasons, its effects on society and its connection to public policy. He talked about it while traversing the state in his “Walk Across Connecticut” as well as during a trip to North Carolina.

He has discussed the lack of social connection from a few different vantage points: a drop off in attendance at religious services; radicalization in politics; and a country focused on individualism over collective good. And he sees social media further exacerbating the problem for younger generations.

That eventually culminated into drafting “The National Strategy for Social Connection Act” as a starting point for Congress and the federal government to examine why the country has become so isolated — and if there is anything they can do about it.

Murphy, the two-term senator running for reelection next year, is still openly grappling with what can be done at the federal level. He said he understands any skepticism around Congress taking up a nuanced issue that has not been completely fleshed out as well as the odds of getting it through a divided government.

But Murphy believes he and his colleagues have a responsibility to at least better understand it because of the government’s own actions. He argued the lack of protections on social media platforms and stagnation of the minimum wage — forcing some people to work longer hours — helped fuel a culture that does not have the capacity to prioritize social connections.

“I completely understand that a lot of people look at the emotion of loneliness and think it has nothing to do with the government,” Murphy said. “But my argument is that people are feeling alone and lonely today because of the decisions that governments made.

“I think the government has a legitimate role to play in helping to build the places where we can find and meet each other,” he added. “What we need to do is create an economy and provide funding to the levels of government and organization that are connected.”

But given the gridlock in Congress, advocates and experts on social connection and mental health in Connecticut do not want to wait for some sort of action on this issue, especially since the federal government does not work with individuals on a daily basis.

They believe that action ultimately needs to emanate from local communities, and that Congress and the federal government can assist in that work. Connecticut has started to take on that workload with the formation of the Connecticut Collaborative to End Loneliness.

“Establishing broad policy is important, but then you got to get to the state level and ultimately the local level,” said Deb Bibbins, who is the founder of Connecticut-based nonprofit For All Ages, which focuses on tackling loneliness across generations and spearheaded the creation of the collaborative.

“Real change is going to take place at the local level, and act as an entity that can take guidance and advice and funding level [from the federal government], and ultimately work with the state of Connecticut,” she added.

A starting point

While the U.S. is more of a newcomer to addressing loneliness on a macro level, other countries have tasked their governments with finding solutions for years.

In 2018, England appointed its first minister of loneliness. Murphy said parts of his proposal are “borrowed” from the work done under former Prime Minister Theresa May, a member of the U.K.’s Conservative Party.

A few years later in 2021, Japan also established a minister with a similar role to the one in the U.K., followed by its parliament passing legislation this year to empower local communities to help people facing social isolation.

Then in May of this year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness and social isolation a public health epidemic. His office’s advisory cited the increase in physical and mental health consequences associated with feeling lonely: an uptick in risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia for older adults as well as depression.

And a recent poll from Meta-Gallup found that nearly a quarter of people worldwide feel either fairly or very lonely.

That spurred action in some states like Connecticut as well as Murphy’s own efforts.

Murphy’s legislation would establish the Office of Social Connection Policy to operate within the White House. That office would later assemble an advisory council composed of representatives across nearly every Cabinet department as well as health care providers, researchers, employers, volunteer groups and veterans organizations.

They would create a set of national guidelines on social connection and coordinate on how to support those goals by building on social infrastructure including member associations, policy like transportation or housing, and public spaces like parks and libraries.

The bill would also authorize $5 million a year between 2024 and 2029 in funding for research conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Murphy is not the first U.S. senator to propose legislation on this topic. With the hopes of including it in a pandemic relief package, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., introduced a bill in early 2021 that would have provided emergency funding aimed at generating more social connection for seniors and older Americans.

“I see these topics — loneliness and social isolation — as part of what I would call social health. I think of these topics as more of on a continuum,” said Nicholas Nicholson, a professor of nursing at Quinnipiac University who researches mitigation strategies for social isolation, particularly among older adults.

“For these underlying issues, there needs to be ongoing structure over time, and that can happen through government policy that comes down to local public health and local health care providers,” he added.

‘This job can be very lonely’

Murphy’s interest in prioritizing loneliness is not a simple or singular answer.

He says he did not take up the issue because of his own personal experiences. And his focus on this is “not a simple extension of my work on gun violence.”

But both his personal and professional experiences have played a part in informing his approach.

Murphy said he experienced bouts of loneliness during childhood and the transition to college. Now, he is a parent of a teenager and a preteen navigating a more disconnected generation especially because of social media.

And his job as a U.S. senator can be lonely.

For Murphy, the gravity of issues like gun violence have been isolating at times. He said it was more difficult when the movement for gun safety reforms was in the earlier stages and had a lot less support within Congress.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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