Social isolation has become an invisible epidemic in our country. Every year, more and more people are isolating themselves from the world due to unresolved or undiagnosed mood disorders, like anxiety or depression. Even when self-initiated, being cut off from the world can lead to loneliness. For older people living with HIV, feeling lonely is an all-too-common experience.
As Plus previously reported, survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder are recurring themes in the lives of many who were first diagnosed in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In New York City, nearly half of people living with HIV are over 50; in San Francisco the number of HIV-positive people over 50 has already reached 60 percent. And according to the Institute on Aging, nearly one-third of older adults living outside nursing homes or hospitals live alone.
It’s hard explaining to someone what loneliness feels like unless they’ve actually been there themselves. It has nothing to do with the amount of people around you, or whether you’re single or married, but rather a deep feeling of isolation — a lack of connection with others and the world, a feeling that no one “gets” you, thus creating a deep cycle hard to break free of.
As The New York Times points out, research suggests that loneliness is “not necessarily the result of poor social skills or lack of social support,” but rather a unique sensitivity, or heightened awareness, with social cues. For example, lonely people often see vague social cues negatively, which causes them to enter a self-preservation mindset (which makes things worse). As a result, they either push people away or cause them to withdraw from their social circle.
The suicide rate among those living with HIV has been increasing. A study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health showed a total 993 deaths among 5229 patients accessing antiretroviral therapy — 8.2 percent were caused by suicide.
Those living with HIV over 50 are at an increased risk of loneliness and suicide due to social stigma. As the study says, “the prevalence of mental health disorders, particularly depression, have been reported at elevated” when compared with the general population.
A consequence of loneliness is a need to balm it with individual practices. Many young men have resorted to chemsex to coat their search for love and emotional attachment. In this digital age, we have grown accustomed to shaping ourselves around social media profiles, but an invisible consequence of that is a disconnection within ourselves.
Have we forgotten about our community, and how it brought us out of the dark?
Social isolation is killing not only our spirits, but our bodies as well. Research shows that social separation disrupts sleep patterns, immune systems (which is already compromised for HIV-positive people over 50), and produced higher levels of stress hormones. It also increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent, as reported in the journal Heart.
It’s time we start listening to those whose voices hide behind their tears. Loneliness is an epidemic that needs to end. Now.