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BC Professor Shines Light on the Effects of Social Isolation

Social isolation has been selected by the American Academy as one of the ten grand challenges of social issues to be focused on over the next decade. James Lubben, Ahearn Endowed Professor at the School of Social Work, addressed the issue of social isolation in a recent study. His essay summarizes the research and the knowledge of how social isolation is an important health issue to assert that the dilemma of social isolation requires more attention from social workers and researchers.

The paper points out that social isolation “is a potent killer” and presents evidence demonstrating that the negative effect of social isolation on health is as serious as that of smoking. Lubben mentioned in his paper the Berkman-Syme experiment, which has established a precedent for the study of social isolation by showing the association between social isolation and mortality. The Berkman-Syme Social Network Index (SNI) sums up the factors of social interaction including assessment of one's relationship with family or friends, and whether or not a respondent is married or belongs to a church or any organized group. As cited in Lubben's paper, the result shows the SNI was significantly correlated to mortality rates. After the Berkman-Syme experiment, more research endeavors and experiments were conducted to emphasize the importance of social health. “It took a while for people to see that mental health is just as important as physical health, and now we need to evaluate social health so that people see it, too, as important,” said Lubben.

While social isolation influences people throughout their entire lifetime, this issue has a dramatic effect on young people. Numerous experiments show that a strong social network can prevent mental illness and problematic behaviors, while social isolation has been associated with anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts in young people. Furthermore, Lubben's paper explained that social isolation can threaten the safety and well-being of others, which has been demonstrated by mass murder cases that trace back to individuals who experienced severe isolation as the perpetrators. “We need to impress upon young people how dangerous social isolation can be,” said Lubben, “and we need to think about how to design programs to facilitate building relationships.”

The risk of social isolation can be mitigated if people take action. Lubben suggests three things to help people who face the challenge of being excluded. The first one is to raise the awareness of the deadly effects of social isolation. Second, social professionals and workers need to pay attention to this issue when they conduct their regular assessment. Third, professionals need to start developing tests to see what methods work and for who.

Boston College has implemented numerous programs to facilitate student formation. Two of the most popular programs are listed below:

  1. 48HOURS is “a weekend experience open to all first-year students who are interested in finding ways to take advantage of BC's intellectual, social, and spiritual resources.” (BC First Year Experience)
  2. Halftime “is an invitation to step back from your busy life to spend a weekend to think about how your major and future career fit in with who you really are. It is open to sophomores, juniors and seniors.” (BC Center of student formation)

To access Professor Lubben's essay, please click here.


Jing Xu