Two major things happened during the first week of May. On Wednesday (May 3), the United States Surgeon-General released a Surgeon General advisory “calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection.” On Friday (May 5), I graduated with my master of library science from Indiana University Bloomington.
For me, graduate school started out as a time of loneliness. I was sharing an apartment with someone I barely knew, living in a city I’d only visited once previously, and trying to build connections with my existing network of friends and family that were miles away. I had a week or so in late July 2021 to orient myself to the city before work started, and two weeks of work before classes began. I was going to church with my apartment-mate, but never really connected with that church, and switched to streaming instead of attending in-person sometime that September.
During that first semester, it was my online friends who kept me going. Weekly game nights with friends from the Love Thy Nerd Discord server gave me something to look forward to during rough weeks, including the month when I was living alone. Another couple of Discord servers gave me friends to chat with about all sorts of topics, especially Dungeons and Dragons and other TTRPGs, and I even joined a D&D 5e group for the first time in years with the help of Discord video chat and Tabletop Simulator.
I moved into another apartment at the start of spring semester, and slowly reached out more. I started regularly streaming a different church, then attended that church in person for the first time during Holy Week. While the previous church I’d attended was one where I never quite fit in, I felt like I belonged at this church very quickly, with people welcoming me in and remembering my name on my second visit. During my second and final year of grad school, I found a community where I felt like I belonged, both through my online friendships and my connection with my church. I joined the church choir in August and helped lead the college book study from its start until early May. By graduation, I’d built strong enough connections that leaving town to look for jobs and get married was difficult.
I’m far from the only person out there who found themselves suddenly cut off from social connections. My sudden isolation occurred because of graduate school, but others have their own reasons for finding themselves lonely, especially after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is possible to live with little interaction with others, especially for those working remote positions, on disability, or unemployed. However, living a solitary life can eat away at a person. Having others who check in periodically, whether that’s in-person or virtually, can make all the difference.“The only way to combat an epidemic of loneliness and isolation is to build connections with others, and that starts with reaching out to those around us.” -Rachel Knight
The Surgeon General released a six-pillar framework for a strategy to advance social connection: strengthen social infrastructure, enact pro-connection public policies, mobilize the health sector, reform digital environments, deepen our knowledge, and cultivate a culture of connection.. The sixth pillar is the one I related to most: cultivate a culture of connection. The happiest moments during my graduate school years were times I spent with others. Pizza and board games in a friend’s apartment to celebrate the end of a semester, attending a few cons and meeting online friends in-person for the first time, and visits from family and friends… each interaction with those I cared about made life a little brighter. In-person interactions like these aren’t always possible, but online interactions also bring their own light: playing a video game with people hundreds of miles away, hanging out in Twitch chat with the Love Thy Nerd community, and Discord messaging my partner and other friends until the wee hours of the morning.
The only way to combat an epidemic of loneliness and isolation is to build connections with others, and that starts with reaching out to those around us.