Loneliness and Addiction are Linked
By Brian Hurley, MD, MBA, FAPA, DFASAM, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Loneliness has become a significant public health issue – to the degree that Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has declared it an epidemic. While there are many factors contributing to this trend, addiction and loneliness are closely linked and often mutually reinforcing. Treating addiction is a priority when addressing the loneliness epidemic.
The prevalence of both addiction and loneliness is staggering. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 46.3 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD) in the past year. Addiction and loneliness often co-occur; individuals with addiction often struggle to maintain social connections, and loneliness is a risk factor that drives the use of drugs and alcohol.
Our health care system is in a position to address both addiction and loneliness simultaneously. As medical professionals, we need to ensure patients have access to addiction prevention and treatment resources when and where they need them. Lifesaving medications are currently available and should be prescribed by qualified practitioners throughout the health system. Effective and evidence-based psychosocial and medical approaches to treating addiction exist, including activity scheduling and pro-social connectivity, and they improve both addiction and loneliness.
The following six approaches increase the accessibility of addiction treatment for patients, regardless of the setting:
- Identify patients with SUD and other related conditions using validated screening and assessment tools. Medical professionals can intervene early to prevent and treat addiction and arrest loneliness from taking hold by identifying patients at risk for addiction and for loneliness.
- Know your referral network of addiction medicine specialists. This network is critical in helping patients access the specialized care they need to overcome addiction and loneliness. Addiction medicine specialists are uniquely positioned to address both addiction and loneliness because they understand the complex interplay between these conditions and can develop customized treatment plans that address the root causes of each. Moreover, addiction medicine specialists can help patients build social connections and support networks that can combat loneliness.
- Foster a supportive, non-stigmatizing environment for your patients by giving attention to the spoken, printed, and implicit language present in our environments. Stigma surrounding addiction is a top barrier to patients receiving the lifesaving care they need today. Normalize asking about risks for addiction the same way you would address diabetes or heart attack risks. Learn techniques like Motivational Interviewing to facilitate meaningful conversations with patients during appointments.
- Make evidence-based addiction treatment available to patients. The deadliest threat to patients is the treatment gap for addiction. All practitioners can treat addiction. Addiction medicine specialists cannot do it alone and, frankly, there are not enough addiction specialists today to meet the overwhelming demand. All members of the medical community must play a role in meeting patients where they are.
- Addiction pharmacotherapy saves lives – clinicians should prescribe medication for addiction to patients with addiction. Prescribing medication for SUD is not more difficult than prescribing medications for other chronic diseases. Addiction treatment CME gives practitioners the confidence to treat addiction and improve their patients’ health and well-being. The medications are evidence-based and can be a vital part of a patient's recovery journey. Register for CME that meets the new DEA education requirement on SUD.
- Physicians should consider becoming board certified in addiction medicine. The ABPM Board Certification in Addiction Medicine Exam application is open now, and the AOA Addiction Medicine Certification Exam application will open on June 1. The practice pathways for certification are only available for a limited time. Learn how physicians boarded in addiction medicine have reignited their passion for medicine and helping patients live their best lives.
By acting now, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of people struggling with addiction and loneliness.
Brian Hurley, MD, MBA, DFASAM, is president of the American Society
of Addiction Medicine. He is an addiction physician and the Medical
Director of the Division of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control for
the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Dr. Hurley chairs
the Los Angeles County SafeMedLA Medications for Addiction Treatment
Action Team and is the Clinical Director of the Addiction Treatment
Starts Here program through the Center for Care Innovations. Dr. Hurley
is also a senior researcher at the Friends Research Institute.