Why the idea of a “pill for loneliness” has me nervous

I came across this article in The Guardian: Scientists are apparently working on a pill for loneliness.

The article does a great job of noting a fundamental truth about humans: We are social creatures. When we are denied social interaction with others, we become depressed and lose our ability to function. As a result of societal changes, a changing family and work structure, the increasing business of human life (and more!), humans are spending less and less time with others. We’re spending more and more time by ourselves. This has frightening implications for our ability to function as a society and as individuals.

Loneliness is bad for you. This is something which The Depression Cure concentrates on, and the Guardian article correctly notes:

Loneliness elevates our risk of developing a range of disorders, including cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, cognitive decline, and metastatic cancer. It also weakens the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections. Left untended, even situational loneliness can ossify into a fixed state that changes brain structures and processes…

The cure, in my opinion, has to start on the individual level. We have to prioritize getting off the damn phone and spending time with others. It is very much within our ability to change our lifestyles and re-prioritize how we use our valuable time. The change won’t be easy, but it will come.

That being said, there’s a “promising” line of research creating medication which would “interfere with the ways loneliness affects the brain and body.” Initial studies have shown that the medication reduces perceptions of loneliness among those who take them.

This has me really, really itchy and uncomfortable.

Look, let me just clarify something: I am very pro-medication for treating depression. I’ve been on anti-depressants for almost half my life and I know that they have saved my life. They’ve given me an ability to function which I never would have had otherwise. Medication, combined with therapy, can give someone their life back.

But, that doesn’t mean that we should default to medication when other options are available.

I’ve taken medication for depression – along with millions of others – because traditional therapy wasn’t enough. I viewed it not as a first resort, but as a second/third one (I wouldn’t even say last because there are more intensive forms of therapy, like ECT). But the notion of someone being lonely and turning to a pill has me uncomfortable because there are less radical options which are relatively easily available. 

People who are lonely can undergo a slew of social efforts in order to meet people. Sometimes, this means making yourself attend classes or events. Other times, this means picking up the phone and calling someone in your social network and redeveloping a preexisting connection. But, more often than not, there are ways to deal with loneliness. That’s why I’m nervous here. We can’t just turn to pills to fix something when there are other solutions available.

I suspect I am not completely understanding this. There is something in the article about how taking the medication can actually help people reconnect with others – loneliness can work like depression in that it can create a “cycle” of loneliness – you get lonely and feel too “stuck” to fix it, so you don’t connect with anyone and you withdraw further from your social circle, and then you get more lonely, etc. I get that. But I fear that a pill to cure loneliness will, in the long run, just make us all more lonely.

This is one of the more controversial things I think I’ve said lately about depression and medication, so I’d be curious to hear what you have to say. Am I right or wrong? Let me know in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Why the idea of a “pill for loneliness” has me nervous

  1. I agree and I’m tired of people who say you should accept it Its against the grain of our species You wouldn’t tell someone to accept hunger or go without oxygen

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  2. I agree with you. I have experienced loneliness and know loved ones who have as well. Loneliness is a scary thing to experience. As you age there are moments when you really have no control over it. My mother has passed away and I find myself often wishing I would have spent so much more time with her, playing cards, crocheting, watching a movie. Now I also find myself seeing my children in the same light. They experience loneliness and I know they do but I don’t know how to reach them. How can we truly reach people who we know are lonely when we feel they want to shut us out or do not want us to know everything about them. We have allowed social media to influence our kids lives with people they will most likely never see. They are not realizing their are people around them who need them and that they need and that they can touch in the physical form. When something earth shattering happens they honestly believe these people living on the other side of the world can save them when the reality is they can’t. How do we fix this problem. Also they don’t understand that people around them have needs. They don’t even recognize when someone is lonely or hurting emotionally because they have disconnected themselves with reality. Please help. This is something that no amount of drugs is going to fix. Something is seriously wrong with our society. There was and has been more motivation during the Great Depression and also times of war. No cell phone, no games. We had to talk and we had to actually love someone in the physical sense. Please help if you can.

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