The pathologization of emotion has been on the march for decades, especially in the US, where fully one sixth of the adult population takes an antidepressant or other psychiatric drug. Now the mental-health industry has a new target – loneliness.
Nearly half of Americans polled last year by health insurer Cigna said they lacked meaningful relationships or companionship. A solutions-based society might examine why so many people feel alienated from their peers despite the constant connectivity of smartphones and internet. A symptom-focused model, however, simply looks to stop them from feeling that way by any means necessary.
Loneliness is “worse than obesity,” according to a raft of studies that have emerged linking the emotion to increased risk of premature death, and even rivals smoking. And like obesity – big business for Big Pharma, gastric bypass surgeons and weight-loss gurus – it requires medical intervention.
THERE’S A PILL FOR THAT
The University of Chicago’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory recently began an eight-week trial of the hormone pregnenolone, rounding up volunteers with “off-the-chart” scores on a psychological loneliness scale. Based on animal studies suggesting the chemical can reduce the exaggerated threat reactions that researchers say characterize loneliness, they hope to normalize the lonely person’s self-centered hyper-vigilance that drives them to both desire human connection and deal poorly with it.
Researchers insist the intention is not to cure loneliness with a pill, but the trial sets a precedent for doing just that – with another psychiatric drug, if pregnenolone doesn’t work out. Antidepressants, for example, have for years been used (and abused) to treat conditions other than depression, with the largest pharmaceutical industry lawsuits targeting overprescribing and off-label prescribing.
And unlike most regular medical patients, individuals deemed mentally ill tend to remain on medication for years, if not for life.
Mental health professionals writing about the loneliness epidemic discuss behavioral interventions, community programs, and therapy, but the introduction of a pharmaceutical solution may prove too tempting for a profession that has learned to love the quick fix a pill provides. Like depression, loneliness has an infinite number of possible causes, some of which are natural and healthy reactions to major life changes. Other types of loneliness have clear behavioral causes that would (before the magic pill, at least) necessitate clear behavioral solutions. Would a psychiatrist reach to medicate the loneliness of a person who only socializes through Facebook with a pill rather than encourage them to talk to real people?
Studies have shown that just a week away from the platform can bring “significant” improvements in well-being, suggesting that in this case, at least, correlation may indeed equal causation. But why force the patient to change his life when a pill will do the trick?
In a quick-fix society that prefers to treat the symptoms while ignoring the disease, a pill for loneliness may be embraced with all the fervor with which antidepressants were greeted before people began to realize that they cause suicidal and homicidal behavior, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, and a host of other problems – and that they don’t actually cure depression.
A loneliness pill will also not address Americans’ emotionally unhealthy digitally-addicted lifestyles. After all, human contact, including real-life socializing, has become a luxury – so says the New York Times, explaining that humans are expensive, screens and robots are cheap, and expecting the unwashed masses to be able to afford access to living, breathing humans like themselves is simply unrealistic.
BRIDGING THE UNCANNY VALLEY
Because if the “loneliness pill” doesn’t work out, AI is waiting in the wings. Already seen as the future of at-home healthcare for aging populations under the care of cash-strapped governments, friendly, helpful robots could find their way into the homes of the lonely. And while snooping AI “digital assistants” like Amazon’s Alexa tend to creep people out, this new wave of robo-buddies would be framed as medical help. As lonely humans become accustomed to conversing with their robot pals, their expectation for real human contact may diminish, and their sense of loneliness with it. After all, you can’t miss what you never had. Already, given the stunted level of discourse on social media, many of us have found ourselves tricked into talking to bots, sometimes exchanging several messages before realizing our interlocutor is not human.
As the bar for “meaningful relationships” is lowered to the point where chatting with an AI can qualify, the loneliness epidemic vanishes – on paper, at least, and in US public health policy, sometimes that’s all that matters.
LONELY OR JUST ALONE?
The pathologization of loneliness will inevitably elide the difference between being alone and being lonely, as the mental health industry runs out of lonely people to treat with whatever therapeutic weapon wins this particular arms race and is forced to seek more patients. “Loners” – those dangerous types who actually enjoy solitude – are stigmatized as unpredictable weirdos who need to be brought into the fold. The man who shot up a Walmart in El Paso earlier this month was an “extreme loner,” according to media reports. Would we be reading about it if he was an “extreme extrovert”? The myth of the “introvert killer” pops up every time, even though it has been thoroughly debunked.
With no anti-loneliness pill on the market – yet – it is impossible to predict what’s next for the creeping pathologization of the human emotional experience. But Amazon’s Alexa has moved one step closer to the companion-robot model, rolling out a medical feature earlier this year which could conceivably be deployed to “check on” individuals at risk for loneliness.
And with implantable devices like Elon Musk’s Neuralink on the horizon, bringing that AI directly in contact with your mind, you’ll never be able to feel lonely again. Solitude – like privacy and human contact before it – thus becomes the ultimate luxury good.
Helen Buyniski is an American journalist and political commentator, working at RT since 2018