WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Administration for Community Living (ACL) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health this week launched the MENTAL Health Challenge to combat the social isolation and loneliness that older adults, people with disabilities and veterans often experience.
A total of $750,000 in prizes will be awarded for development of an easy-to-use online system that offers recommendations for programs, activities and resources that can help users connect to others and engage in the community, based on their individual needs, interests and abilities. The winning system will be announced and demonstrated in January 2021 at CES , an annual trade show produced by the Consumer Technology Association. It ultimately will become the centerpiece of a national public awareness campaign.
Social disconnection has enormous health consequences. Social isolation has been found to be as harmful to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and people who are socially isolated or lonely face higher risk of hospitalization; depression, anxiety and suicide; heart failure and stroke; dementia; and even premature death. Not surprisingly, a recent analysis found that Medicare spends an additional $6.7 billion every year on enrollees who are socially isolated.
“We need a multipronged public health approach to change the way we address social isolation, especially among our most at-risk populations,” said U.S. Surgeon General, VADM Jerome M. Adams, M.D., M.P.H. “This approach must include the development of innovative solutions to combat the harmful physical and mental health effects of social isolation and the role technology has in promoting better connections for all.”
For a variety of reasons, older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans are more likely to be socially isolated and to report feeling lonely. Nearly a quarter of Americans who are 65 or older have few social relationships or infrequent social contact with others, and more than 40 percent of people 60 and older report feeling lonely. In one small study, people with disabilities were more than three times more likely to report feelings of loneliness than people without disabilities. Veterans report higher rates of loneliness than civilians, particularly if they have functional limitations or have experienced traumatic events, and loneliness has been cited as the top risk factor for suicidal ideation in veterans.
The number of older adults is projected to almost double by the year 2060, the population of people with disabilities also is growing, and 22 veterans die by suicide every day. There is a clear and critical need to help all three connect with others and engage in their communities. This is particularly true when normal social interaction is limited due to a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For many older adults and people with disabilities, increased social isolation and loneliness is one unfortunate consequence of physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Lance Robertson, ACL Administrator and HHS Assistant Secretary for Aging. “We need to have a wider range of tools and resources to help people remain connected and engaged, and an easy-to-use way for people to find and access them.”
Supporting partners for the Mobilizing and Empowering the Nation and Technology to Address Loneliness & social isolation (MENTAL) Health Innovation Challenge include the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Challenge was coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“Staying connected to family, friends, and colleagues is important, especially during the pandemic,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “The FCC has a long history of helping ensure that those at risk for isolation, like older Americans and people with disabilities, can access the communications technologies that can keep them connected, healthy, and safe. We look forward to joining HHS and others in this important effort to enable technology to help vulnerable Americans.”
“Technology can provide unique solutions to combat social isolation. The Trump Administration is committed to leveraging the Nation’s entrepreneurial spirit to address the pandemic, and we know America’s innovators will rise to this challenge,” said U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios.
More information about the MENTAL Health Innovation Challenge, including deadlines and evaluation criteria, can be found at ACL.gov/challenge and at https://www.challenge.gov/challenge/MENTAL-health-social-isolation-challenge.
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