(NEW YORK) - There's an epidemic of loneliness in the United States, and experts have told ABC News it could be fueling violence.
In California, there have been three shootings in three days, linked to an assailant who may have exhibited signs of social isolation and/or violent behavior, according to authorities.
In Monterey Park, police documents revealed that the 72-year-old suspect had been divorced from his wife since 2006, lived alone in Hemet, about 30 miles southeast of Riverside, and was angry and resentful.
A former tenant and longtime acquaintance of the shooter, who preferred to remain anonymous, told ABC News that he liked to dance but did not have many friends at any of the dance studios he was allegedly targeting.
The suspect was "distrustful of everyone," the acquaintance said, adding: "I wouldn't say he was aggressive, but he just didn't get along with people."
In the Half Moon Bay shooting, the man accused of killing seven farmworkers had a history of threats after losing his job at a restaurant, according to local ABC News affiliate KGO-TV.
According to court documents, a former coworker and roommate filed a restraining order against the suspect after he allegedly threatened to kill him. The suspect allegedly tried to suffocate him by putting a pillow over his face if he did not help the suspect retrieve his job.
The experts said that while there isn't much research on isolation, there appears to be a link between loneliness and violence, the experts said.
"Clearly isolation and loneliness are at play in a lot of violence," said Dr. Edwin Fisher, a psychologist and professor in the department of behavioral health at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health. “They can be important red flags for us to recognize and try to help people who are prone to violence.”
Fisher said there are many types of violence that social isolation and loneliness are linked to, including online solicitation of minors, intimate partner violence, cyberstalking and homicide.
“The denunciation and the perception of oneself as a victim, I think both are present in the mass murders in California in the last few days,” he said. "So, in addition to being socially isolated and feeling lonely, resentful, victimized, eventually turning my back, it can be very important in some types of violence."
Loneliness epidemic among men
The loneliness that violence perpetrates may be affecting American men more than women as men suffer a "friendship recession."
According to data from the American Enterprise Institute's Center for Surveys of American Life in 2021, the percentage of men who reported having at least six close friends halved, from 55% in 1990 to 27% in 2021.
The percentage of men who report not having close friends has multiplied by five, from 3% in 1990 to 15% in 2021. In addition, one in five single men says they have no close friends.
On the other hand, women are much more likely to report having close friends and relying on those friends for emotional support, the survey found.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men had four times the suicide rate of women in 2020. Men make up 49% of the US population, but nearly 80% of suicides, CDC data.
"You could speculate that there is something linking male loneliness to violence," Dr. Nathaniel Glasser, a clinical researcher and instructor of medicine at the Medical University of Chicago, told ABC News. “That in situations where boys and men experience loneliness, they – not always, but occasionally, certainly very frequently – resort to violent mechanisms to reconcile or deal with their loneliness.”
Glasser pointed to a firearms manufacturer's ads for an assault rifle, one of which read: "Consider reissuing your man card."
“This is exactly the language that some gun manufacturers use, or have used, to talk to men, saying that guns are a way for men to try to recapture some kind of image of masculinity,” he added.
Dr. Elizabeth Tung, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, agrees.
"There's a lot of speculation, but I think there's also the threat of social emasculation and emasculated lone men trying to reclaim their masculinity somehow," he told ABC News.
Experts, such as Dr. Niobe Way, believe that the increase in male loneliness may be a factor in the rise in violence.
Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, has studied children through adolescence. She said that when they are younger, around 12 or 13, they talk about wanting close friendships and emotional intimacy.
However, as they get older and begin to experience the expectations of traditional masculinity, "they start to disconnect from their desires and feel much more isolated," he told ABC News.
“The disconnection, the loss that no one seems to care that our children feel isolated,” Way, author ofDeep Secrets: Boy Friendships and the Connection Crisis, saying. "They start to disconnect from their own humanity because they can't find the relationships they want, and many are depressed and angry about this."
Violence also leads to loneliness
Tung said the opposite could also be true, meaning that being exposed to violence could also lead to loneliness.
A 2019 study she co-authored found that adults living in Chicago neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime are more likely to feel lonely than the average American.
“We found that there is a very strong relationship between any type of exposure to violence, whether it is direct or indirect police violence, community violence, and being more isolated and alone,” he told ABC News. "It's interesting because the state of isolation and loneliness in the US is already much higher than it was 50 years ago...and the fact that exposure to violence is associated with an even higher increase in this statistic is quite frightening".
In this case, the theory is that communal violence increases mistrust and suspicion, leading to further isolation and loneliness.
access to weapons
This is all related to widespread access to guns in the United States, experts said.
A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that four in 10 US adults live in a household with a gun, while 30% said they own a gun.
Federal data suggests that gun sales have increased, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, only 21 states and the District of Columbia require background checks on sales of some or all types of firearms, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
Fisher said she is writing a chapter on social isolation and loneliness for the American Psychological Association, and one of the findings shows the importance of gun control.
“One of the findings of the chapter is how global studies of Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, around the world, social isolation and loneliness are,” he said. “Only in the United States are they causing a lot of mass murder.”
solving the problem
So how do we combat the problem of loneliness? Experts say there are some ideas.
“There is a lot of research out there on how to really promote this idea of social prescription,” Tung said. "Helping seniors make more social connections, we might prescribe that as someone who goes to a senior center and participates in some kind of community activity."
“But there is something larger cultural going on, especially with technology, and if more and more people are spending all of their time connecting through technology rather than in person, I worry that the idea of social prescriptions or social prescriptions for health care for social activities it is too simplistic,” Tung added.
There is also a need to ensure that people have robust and varied social interactions that can help curb manifestations of violent behavior, the experts said.
"So when we talk about isolated people, we want to try to think in terms of encouraging varied social connections and healthy social connections, so to speak, as opposed to the community of, you know, child molesters that they're connected to on the web. Fisher said.
He also added that being nice can be just as important as a long conversation.
“A really important point is that social connection doesn't necessarily have to be deep, intimate conversations for hours on end,” he said. “Casual contacts can be very important just to make us feel connected. So if you see people who seem lonely, who perhaps seem a little fragile or discontented, kind words can go a long way. It's far from a solution, but it helps."
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