Researchers at the Brain Dynamics Laboratory in Chicago conducted a trial for the hormone pregnenolone with volunteers who have high scores on a loneliness scale. The hormone may benefit the lonely person who desires human connection yet also has an instinct for self-preservation. The hypothesis is that it may normalize the hyper-vigilance of lonely people that is a barrier in their attempts at human connection.
But the question is whether loneliness, part of the human condition, is a health issue that needs to be treated with medication? I invited experts to provide their opinion on the pros and cons of a potential pharmaceutical treatment for loneliness and if it is any different than medication for other mental health concerns.
Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S, a psychotherapist, has some concerns about treating something as a mental health condition when it is not one. He says “the primary difference between targeting loneliness instead of something like depression or anxiety is that loneliness is not a diagnosable condition in the DSM V. This gets into a tricky area of mental health and treatment. Are there any ethical considerations to consider if we began treating a condition that is not considered diagnosable? And, where is the line drawn?”
Dr. Sherrie Campbell, the author of But It's Your Family, also has concerns about the use of pills to address loneliness. She says, “We do not need more pills. The truly mentally ill need medication, whereas most people taking psychopharmaceutical medications do not need them but want them to make life easier. Life is to be loved on life's terms. Life isn't easy and loneliness is a challenge for all people throughout life.”
Although Adina Mahalli, MSW, sees the potential in it for people who suffer immensely from loneliness, she believes we need to look to other sources of healing other than medication. “It becomes problematic if we try to solve every problem in society with a pill instead of teaching people how to help themselves through changing their behaviors and actions,” says Mahalli. “It can act as an enabler, letting loners stay this way and be satisfied with it instead of forming new connections and bonds.”
But perhaps it could be a temporary solution that enables people to make behavioral changes that would reduce loneliness? Dr. Nancy Irwin, a psychologist and therapist with Seasons in Malibu, thinks it could help people feel more comfortable increasing their social interaction at a reasonable pace. It could be “a launching pad to ultimately be able to face social situations without the pregnenolone,” said Irwin.
Whether loneliness is part of the human condition is up for debate. Campbell believes we need bouts of loneliness, challenge, depression or anxiety to develop resilience. She says, “We need all these emotional experiences for our personal growth. If we get medicated for every emotion or experience that challenges us, what is the point in even living?”
Yet Laves-Webb challenges that notion by asking if we shouldn’t have to know how to be alone in our culture. “Perhaps the very nature of the statement is the problem. Salt is a necessary and life-affirming element when utilized in moderation but when utilized in excessive amounts it can kill. Is loneliness not subject to similar dynamics?”
He adds “Our workplaces, homes, libraries, pubs, entertainment venues, and free time are lonely environments in this modern age. There is too little respite, too little community, and too little social support creating a cascade of loneliness that is challenging to dig out from.”
Will we no longer be able to distinguish the difference between being alone and being lonely? Perhaps a temporary pharmaceutical treatment will reduce perceived social isolation and help people break patterns inhibiting their ability to take part in social interactions. Irwin summarizes by stating “I feel that with more research, this treatment can be a great springboard for many people who are introverts or empty nesters, or for those overcoming an addiction or trauma and are ready to expand their support system and social sphere.”