LRI connections: A cure to loneliness epidemic

A monitor beeps, keeping time with a heart’s beat. A machine whirs between gurneys. A doctor pulls back the bedside curtain and emerges, jaw stern and set. “It’s not good news…”

The diagnosis? Loneliness, an American epidemic with staggering health consequences. According to the Surgeon General’s advisory released earlier this year entitled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” lacking connections isn’t only a question of lifestyle — it’s a question of life itself.

Social isolation doubles the risk of developing depression in adults, and has a physical impact akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People experiencing loneliness face a 29% increased risk of heart disease, 32% increased risk of stroke, 50% increased risk of developing dementia, and, perhaps most alarmingly, a 60% increased risk of premature death.

On top of the effects on the mind and body, being disconnected also has a deep impact on the body politic. Social isolation is correlated to disengagement, dissatisfaction, increased hospital spending, lower academic achievement, worse work performance, and decreased levels of community safety.

Loneliness is a grim prognosis, but there is good news. The cure — social connection — has a head start in Rhode Island.

“Leadership Rhode Island is all about connections. The network is like no other, but it goes beyond that. It’s so much deeper. It’s about humans relating to each other. It’s not a network that simply exists and does nothing. It’s an intricately connected group that gives back and makes peoples’ lives—and our state—so much richer and better,” says Leadership Rhode Island Executive Director Michelle Carr Kappa II.

LRI fills a chasm in the cultural ethos left behind by what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy points to as a troubling trend: The decline in U.S. participation in community organizations, from faith groups to recreation leagues.

“Nationwide, we’re seeing more forces that take us away from one another and fewer of the forces that used to bring us together,” Dr. Murthy said.

To counteract the loneliness epidemic, the report outlined a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection that’s structured around six foundational pillars:

1. Strengthen Social Infrastructure
2. Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies
3. Mobilize the Health Sector
4. Reform Digital Environments
5. Deepen Our Knowledge
6. Cultivate a Culture of Connection

One would be hard pressed to find an LRI class that didn’t have at least one member involved in all six pillars at a state or national level. But the last is LRI’s sweet spot, a formidable layer of defense against the onslaught of loneliness.

Three times a year, LRI convenes cohorts of emerging leaders, college students and, most recently, individuals over 62 years old, to put its mission into action: to engage and connect people through shared experiences that positively transform individuals, organizations and communities. It’s been working to boost social capital through social cohesion since its start, but those connections were particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The loneliness epidemic didn’t begin with the COVID-19 pandemic—the Surgeon General advisory found that about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness before the virus changed the world. Yet when isolation is a mandate, a natural consequence is a further disintegration of social ties.

It turns out that, though the pandemic hit locally as hard as anywhere, it also proved that loneliness isn’t about the quantity of your connections, but rather the quality.

Amy Gravell, president of St. Mary Academy-Bay View, and Karen Barbosa, assistant principal of Woonsocket Area Career & Technical Center, began as 2014 Kappa II classmates, became next door neighbors, then friends, and eventually during COVID-19, each other’s lifelines. Bundled in warm clothes and clutching steaming cups of hot beverages, they would sit in their shared driveway and discuss what filled their days and kept them up at night.

“During the pandemic, it made an immeasurable difference to be able to connect in a way that felt critical—a critical friend with whom you can talk about critical things, that in turn allows you to be your best self in critical moments, professionally and personally,” said Barbosa. “LRI was the foundation that made that possible. Being classmates and going through that experience with Amy created a certain level of conversation and connection that otherwise would have taken decades to achieve. It got us through.”

The Pi II class were their own kind of connection experiment, beginning just weeks before the pandemic descended and all in-person activities shifted onto quarantined screens. In a stroke of prescience, their class theme was “aloneness,” the state of being solitary. Group projects sketched out pre-lock down took on an air of fervor and urgency, the theoretical now acutely tangential. And though the class met face-to-face less frequently than any other in history, they forged a unique, enduring bond.

Since graduating three years ago, they’ve made up for lost time. Lead by class speaker Tom Baldwin 2020 Pi II, program manager at Netsimco and former military professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and classmate Rebecca Twitchell, president and founder of half full, llc, the class has convened in “Forward Retreats.” Much more than simply making up for lost time, these gatherings are dedicated to continuing group conversations, checking in with each other, and deepening existing connections.

“Being together in person is incredible, but it’s not a replacement for what we had. Going through LRI in the pandemic was like turning it up to 11. Being virtual actually allowed us the opportunity for more connections—you can have coffee with every classmate on screen,” said Twitchell. “Our topic was “aloneness” and we were the very thing keeping each other from being and feeling alone. What we’re doing now is strengthening the relationships we built when we needed them most.”

If those relationships are Leadership Rhode Island’s secret sauce, a new software called Kumu is helping the team unveil the full power of its formidable network. Its mapping technology visualizes how people are connected to each other, creating a roadmap for collaboration.

For two years running, the team has been able to map connections at the beginning of a class, the midpoint, and the finish, and the results are powerful—circles upon circles of knowledge, inclusion, culture, and potential. Being able to quantify and qualify impact and influence is critical for not only the future of the Ocean State, but for community leadership programs as a whole.

We’re living through an undeniably hard time in history. The Surgeon General has delivered his loneliness diagnosis, but never fear — LRI will see you now.