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When Emotional Experiences Impact Health

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

When Emotional Experiences Impact Health

Reporting on Loneliness and Isolation

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Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred

We don't really want to know that people are lonely. Lonely people seem to sense that.

When I tackled the topic of loneliness as a 2013 National Health Journalism Fellowship project, I honestly didn't think it would be hard to find people who were lonely so that I could write about the issue. I was right and wrong.

It was easy to find people who seemed to be lonely. Who among us have not felt some of those pangs? It was not easy to get anyone to talk about it, at least in personal terms. Folks were more than happy to tell me they had friends who were lonely and felt like ''x, y, z." Almost universally, they said they were not lonely themselves.

I looked at the topic from three views: Loneliness among the elderly, among certain refugee populations and in families where a child is very ill or disabled. In the first two groups, I quickly learned that social isolation and loneliness (not the same thing) are viewed as a personal failing — as if everyone else is living a great life and because of some personal defect, the individual is left all alone, feeling lonely. It was much easier to find parents with a disabled child who were willing to talk about social isolation and loneliness. They are acutely impacted by the condition their child has, but do not view it as their own failing. It was something handed to them or visited upon them, not something they caused.

Defining your reporting topic

The first hurdle I had to overcome, though, was simply defining loneliness and isolation. For that, I visited with a number of experts on the topic, including John T. Cacioppo from the University of Chicago and William Patrick, a Massachusetts-based science writer. The two of them published a book called "Loneliness" in 2008 that looked closely at the research up to that point on loneliness.

I talked to Susan Matt, a professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, who wrote the book on homesickness. You have to understand homesickness to begin to look at the loneliness and isolation felt by refugees. And I talked to child development and family experts to figure out isolation and loneliness among families of ill and disabled children, as well as the children themselves.

Only after I'd had those conversations, some of them as background, exploratory talks, was I even ready to approach "real people" to talk about their lives. I didn't hesitate to ask hard, personal questions. And I interviewed a lot more people than I could ever use in the stories.

Respecting how people see themselves

I had twin challenges: Getting people to talk about their lives and not trying to shoe horn them into my story about loneliness. It was crucial that I let them tell their stories in their words and let them position themselves on the loneliness scale wherever they felt comfortable. I think, as reporters, we sometimes like to find people we can drop into tidy slots to make a point. I didn't have those people and I knew it early on. In fact, I had a few moments of panic on the topic. But once I realized I wouldn't call anyone lonely anyway, I calmed down. I learned that letting people talk about the steps they took to avoid being lonely was probably more helpful to readers anyway. Loneliness is not, after all, a static condition. It's more like a neighborhood most people pass in and out of, some lingering longer than others, a few moving in.

Providing context for the emotions and experience

While real people were the heart of the story, the experts provided context. I was blessed with lots of people who were willing to share what they had already learned. No one knows refugees more than those who work with them daily. And I had a double blessing: Most of those I interviewed had come here as a refugee and could talk from experience but also across the span of time. They knew how isolated and lonely they felt when they got here. But they also knew what made a difference. They were also good guides to figuring out some cultural differences to isolation. Iraqi women, for example, tend to be lonelier than Burundi women, I was told. South Africans are more apt to be isolated than those from some countries.

Enriching the story with advice, multimedia

Two very great things happened that had little to do with me but helped this project immensely. One of my favorite photographers got interested and volunteered to shoot all the photos and add videos. You can't calculate what Jeff Allred's efforts added. And our Web design team decided the project would make a good showcase of some of their exceptional skills, so this was more beautifully presented and more interactive than I had dared dream.

This project got its own highly-interactive site on our website. It was featured on a news program on our sister TV station the day the series started. It got great exposure through

I also benefitted from the smart eyes and heart of the senior fellow I worked with from the fellowship program, Kate Long. She had some wise edits for the first part of the series, which helped me as I constructed the second and third parts. If you're working on a project, I'd recommend getting lots of eyes on it. Be receptive to ideas — and picky, too. You can't please every person, but you can certainly take the best of what works and use it to make a better project.

The other thing I learned on this one was to bend when I needed to in order to complete the job. I originally planned to visit an Indian tribe, but in the end had a conflict that made it impossible. I could have looked 60 different directions for lonely people and ultimately decided to go after three very different but large groups that would, I hoped, show people that they should be paying attention to people they might not be considering. Most people know someone who's elderly, who has a child with a physical challenge that engulfs the whole family or who is far from home and culture. We can all do better at relating to them.

Timing is everything. I think we picked the right season to tell this story.

The thing I liked best about doing this project is that I learned a lot. I hadn't thought about refugees or the elderly or those families in quite this light before. I was able to maintain a professional distance to tell the story, while learning things I can apply to my own life on a daily basis: I can't solve loneliness, but I don't have to contribute to it by pretending not to see the disabled child next to me at the fair, for example. It's okay to smile and interact. More than okay.

When friends and colleagues talk about their own parents’ isolation, I have some suggestions that I would not have known to offer before I tackled this topic. I have also gained a different and more nuanced understanding of some of the issues that impact refugees as they resettle in this country. We are so used to life in America that we may be indifferent or blind to the challenges it poses for others, many of them already traumatized by the violence in their lives and the difficulties they faced just to get here, much less live here.Finally — and this is every reporter's dream — I made my deadline.

Read Lois Collins' stories:

Seniors in Search of a Song

Unsettled Refugees

When the Ill are Invisible


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