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!