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Social isolation leads to depression, suicide attempts in Northwest Indiana — but you can overcome it
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Social isolation leads to depression, suicide attempts in Northwest Indiana — but you can overcome it

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Jennifer Linville tried to slit her own throat, she said, because she was isolated. She was isolated because she was sick and didn't want to subject people to her complaining. She got depressed being isolated and drank because of the depression.

"A couple weeks ago, I tried to commit suicide," the 48-year-old said in a recent phone interview. "Thank God I was drunk, because I didn't succeed."

Linville, a Portage native who now lives in Elkhart, is one of a growing number of Americans who report being socially isolated. People are marrying less, having fewer kids, habitating alone more, going to church less, and living longer, contributing to what some have called a "loneliness epidemic."

And experts say social media is making the problem worse, giving people the illusion of connection but lacking the in-person interaction we've evolved to need.

"Human beings are social creatures," said Sandy Ringer, a mental health therapist with the LaPorte Physician Network in Knox. "It's a basic human need to socialize."

Nearly half of Americans report that they sometimes or always feel alone, according to a 2018 survey by health insurer Cigna. This can have dire public health consequences, experts say.

People with weak social bonds are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with stronger ones, one study found. Socially isolated individuals are at around a third higher risk of a heart attack or stroke, another study determined. Research has also linked loneliness to cognitive decline, sleep disruption and lowered immunity to diseases.

One researcher recently compared the negative health effects of being socially isolated to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Depression, anxiety 

Isolation also affects mental health.

"If someone is isolated or lonely or doesn't have good social skills, that can cause depression, anxiety or nervousness about being out socializing," Ringer said. "Vice versa, if you already had depression or anxiety, that can make you want to isolate. That can go hand in hand."

"It's kind of the chicken-or-egg situation. It's hard to tell which came first," said Angie Cryan, an outpatient therapist with the Ingalls Family Care Center in Flossmoor. "Social isolation is definitely a part of the story of a lot of the patients we see."

Many of these people benefit from group therapy, where they are forced to open up. A challenge for some patients, this can be a breakthrough for others, Cryan said. 

Some people are so socially isolated they develop agoraphobia, or fear of leaving the house, she said. Therapists take small steps with these patients, starting with standing by the front door, then getting the courage to open it.

People who are alone for long periods can lose touch with reality, Cryan noted. Think of the Tom Hanks character in the movie "Cast Away" developing a relationship with a volleyball.

And social media doesn't help.

"Kids are literally sitting next to their friend, texting them. They can't have a face-to-face conversation," Cryan said. "I think we're going to have more depression and anxiety because of it. They're not connecting to people like they should be."

In fact, the Cigna study found Generation Z (adults age 22 and younger) to be the loneliest generation.

"Anytime people feel isolated or they don't have a purpose, they feel disconnected. They're more vulnerable to suicide," said Gail Norton-Hale, a therapist with the Franciscan Health hospital in Dyer. "That goes for any age group."

Some need alone time

Not everyone suffers negative consequences from being alone. Some people are solitary. Take Leah Walta, a 32-year-old "jack-of-all-trades" who lives in Wanatah.

"I just need to be alone at times," she said. "I need my space."

She attributes this to growing up in the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She has gone on solo trips for months, once spending three days atop a waterfall, alone. She'll make friends with an owl if she has to.

"I appreciate simplicity and quiet," she said.

She needs silent contemplation, the calming influence of nature. She's a writer, a reader.

She admits this can be a drag on her romantic relationships, but says she gets anxiety if she's too social.

"When I ignore it and I don't get alone time, I get the impulsive urge to walk off into the rain or snow," she said.

She often listens to the Eddie Vedder song "Guaranteed." It's from the film "Into the Wild," the true story of a guy who hitchhiked to Alaska after graduating college. The lyrics include "Leave it to me as I find a place to be. Consider me a satellite forever orbiting," and "Don't come closer or I'll have to go. Holding me like gravity are places that pull."

On the other hand, Linville, the Portage native, didn't intend to be isolated. She said she started keeping to herself after experiencing sexual abuse as a child.

"We're afraid people are going to reject us and say, 'Why can't you just be happy?'" she said.

So she read books, slept a lot, she said. As an adult, she developed chronic pain and an autoimmune disorder.

"You feel like you're a burden to everybody," she said. "They don't want to hear all your problems or why you're upset or what's hurting."

When she isolated, it led to more depression and anxiety, which cost her a  marriage and job and, ultimately, led to her attempt to kill herself.

But that was a wakeup call. She recently started therapy. She hopes to get back into working with animals; she recalled how volunteering for a shelter when she lived in Georgia gave her "something to live for, something to do and be purposeful."

"I'm about to take a brave step and join Planet Fitness," she said. "Just so I get out and be around people. It doesn't mean I have to talk to them."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

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