‘Epidemic of loneliness’ affects Filipino Americans | Inquirer

‘Epidemic of loneliness’ affects Fil-Ams

Top expert says healing is available

SAN FRANCISCO – Experts confirm that immigrants – long coping with social and economic challenges – have been struggling with loneliness, a condition often hidden and dismissed as a passing emotion.

In fact, says Dr. Jei Africa, director of the Behavioral Health & Recovery Services division at the San Mateo Health System, loneliness if unaddressed may lead to serious adverse physical health outcomes or worse.

“According to US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the mortality impact of loneliness has a similar effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is associated with greater risks of dementia, stroke, anxiety and premature death,” Africa said at the Feb. 12 meeting of the Daly City Council where San Mateo County’s second largest city voted unanimously to pass a resolution declaring loneliness a public health crisis.

Dr. Jei Africa

San Mateo County Behavioral Health & Recovery Services Director Dr. Jei Africa urges caring connections to combat loneliness. CONTRIBUTED

“It is this reason why we should pay attention to it and find ways to increase social connection among individuals, families and communities,” stressed Africa, a Filipino American and San Mateo County’s foremost authority on mental health. “Loneliness is a complex issue.  When we say it’s a public health crisis, (we add that) it will also take a public health solution of us working as a community toward prevention and early intervention.”

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Africa was referring to the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned about in an urgent advisory last year.

Last month the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors became the first county leadership in the nation to declare loneliness a public health crisis per proposal of Supervisor David Canepa, who represents District 5, encompassing Colma, Brisbane, parts of South San Francisco and South San Francisco, and all of Daly City.

Dr. Jei Africa at podium

UP alum Dr. Jei Africa works to transform healthcare systems to be more inclusive and equitable. Photo from Cherie Querol Moreno

Daly City, home of the highest concentration of Filipinos on the US mainland, followed suit, becoming one of if not the first US city to adopt the measure. The Feb. 12 resolution directs the city’s leaders to find solutions to the national concern.

Staggering statistics

“We cannot ignore the statistics – loneliness exists in our City. Declaring loneliness a public health crisis brings awareness and opens up new opportunities to collaborate and partner with the County, as well as local non-profit organizations,” Mayor Juslyn Manalo said in introducing the resolution.

Over half of Daly City’s residents are foreign born and almost 20 percent are 65 years or older, Leilani Ramos, assistant to the City Manager, said in a presentation preceding the resolution vote, to highlight the impact of loneliness on her city’s population.  The pandemic exacerbated the situation, she said, with older immigrants saying they had never felt lonely, she said, until the height of the worldwide calamity.

Daly City Council

Daly City Council becomes the first city in the nation to proclaim loneliness as a public health crisis. CONTRIBUTED

Older immigrants from foreign countries are “particularly susceptible to loneliness, attributed in part to shifts in language, cultural norms, social networks and experiences of racism and/or discrimination,” she cited “national research” results.

San Mateo County statistics reflect the same, said Africa.

“In our 2022 Quality of Life survey we found that about 45 percent experienced some sort of isolation,” said the doctor of psychology who earned his undergraduate degree in UP Manila. He and his team noted the “staggering increase of 16 percent” of residents who said they had no one to turn to in the past month” despite having been in a “crowd of people earlier but at the end of the day” find themselves alone or lonely.

“That’s really concerning for us,” he emphasized.

Africa, who headed the County of Marin BHRS prior to taking his current post, said “men, adults with lower socioeconomic-economic status, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, LGBTQ+ folks and people living in North County often reported that they don’t have any social connection or any network.”

US Surgeon Gen. Vivek Murthy

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounds the alarm on the “epidemic of loneliness” in a May 2023 letter. Photo courtesy of US Surgeon General

Presenter Dr. Hakan Ozcelikh, professor of management for the College of Business at Sacramento State University defined loneliness as “an unpleasant emotional condition that creates psychological, physiological, physical, and sociological effects, causing people to behave in ways that are self-defeating.”

It is “a social phenomenon that needs immediate attention,” he concluded.

Spurring social connections

Exercising cultural humility, Africa said his team is in the very early but vigorous stage “in this work to embed and integrate what Murthy has shared about the 6 pillars” or strategies to combat loneliness and isolation.

The county is already in the midst of collaborative projects involving BHRS, Aging & Adult Services (AAS) and Public Health & Policy to address the issue, said Africa.

Ongoing is a project to “connect people digitally, give access to technology – especially older adults – so they can be connected” to their peers even if they’re geographically separated or distant.

AAS provides trainings on technology in Tagalog, Spanish, Cantonese and English to “decrease the digital divide.”

Another connectivity channel is the “friendship line” run by the Institute of Aging that Africa said received 1,000 calls from July through December 2023 and made calls to the same number the same period.

Recognizing the high susceptibility of older adults to loneliness, BHRS conducts a suicide prevention program to “raise awareness of folks about the science of mental health,” and as an added benefit “give opportunities to come together, relate to each other, especially those affected or interested.”

“We fund peer counseling services provided by Peninsula Family Service,” said Africa, who shared a program that trains Fil-Ams to become counselors for isolated Fil-Ams, as it does for Chinese, LGBTQ+ and English-speaking people, in groups or as individuals.

“We can invest in policies and infrastructures that bring people together, create events and opportunities that foster connections, but we can also start individually in our own lives, with our own personal relationships,” he told Inquirer.net USA after the council meeting.

“We can reach out to family, friends, even the ones who are doing well. We can work on destigmatizing loneliness by talking about it and engaging in conversations by acknowledging that many people are lonely and isolated.”

In other words, never underestimate the power of a simple phone call, an email or a  text because it can make a difference in the quality of life for someone battling loneliness.

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TAGS: Daly City, Fil-Am, loneliness, San Mateo County
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