Dr. Gail Saltz: “Treats loneliness”

— Just ask. People who feel lonely, also often feel insecure and afraid to ask you to get together, to talk, to listen, to connect…even by phone. Ask them first. They need that boost that you would want to, it can help them feel secure enough to keep connecting. As a part of my interview […]

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— Just ask. People who feel lonely, also often feel insecure and afraid to ask you to get together, to talk, to listen, to connect…even by phone. Ask them first. They need that boost that you would want to, it can help them feel secure enough to keep connecting.

As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Gail Saltz. Dr. Saltz is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry with The New York Presbyterian Hospital and psychoanalyst at The New York Psychoanalytic Institute, best known for her work as a relationship, family, emotional wellbeing, and mental health/wellness contributor in the media where she frequently shares her expertise and commentary on the mental health aspects of current issues and news. She is a bestselling author of numerous books including her most recent, The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, a powerful and inspiring examination of the connection between the potential for great talent and conditions commonly thought to be “disabilities.” Dr. Saltz is the host of the 92Y regular, live Psychobiography series, and serves as a Medical Expert for the Physicians for Human Rights. She is also a columnist for US News & World Report and the host of the “Personology” podcast from iHeart Media.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

While doing a residency in internal medicine, I realized that patients’ mental health status had a critical impact on their physical health and wellbeing — more than anything else. I became fascinated with the mind and decided to switch into psychiatry. This decision was met with mixed reactions from colleagues in internal medicine as they thought it was so stigmatized. Throughout my training, I noticed this stigma surrounding mental health was ultimately what kept people from getting the help they desperately needed. This further ignited my passion to help diminish this stigma and educate others through writing and interviews with media.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In June of 2001, I got a call at 6:30 a.m. letting me know that a woman in Texas had drowned all of her children and was asked if I could quickly come on The Today Show — where I had never appeared — to explain issues related to a new mother and infanticide. I explained how common postpartum depression actually is, how one can develop postpartum psychosis, and that up to one year after giving birth, these illnesses can occur. These issues were rarely, if ever, being discussed in a public forum at that time, and as a result women rarely knew this could happen and how to get help. I got a deluge of response from women struggling with post-partum depression, or who had in the past. It altered my view of the importance of public education in mental health and the need to diminish stigma. Ultimately, it changed my career direction towards public education. As an addendum, Andrea Yates was wrongly tried and convicted to prison. It took several years for the conviction to be changed due to the late understanding of post-partum psychosis and her being placed in a psychiatric hospital setting.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

In the earliest days of doing television, I felt somewhat insecure in the fact that my hair was very curly, and no one on TV in those years was ever seen with curly hair. I was constantly being told that I must wear my hair straight. You might think as a doctor, and a psychiatrist no less, I wouldn’t let other people tell me how I had to look. But sadly, insecurity can undermine even mental health professionals. I let stylists straight iron my hair at studios to appease. The humorous part is that my hair is so coarse that sometimes I literally looked like I had a lion’s mane…and people even emailed that to me! One day, I had stepped out of the shower with wet hair and got a call that I needed to be on air in 40 minutes….with 20 minutes of travel. I knew there was absolutely no way to dry and straighten my hair. I told them, “You’ll have to take me curly, or not at all!” I went on-air with my curly hair and felt such relief at looking like myself! I never straightened my hair again. I learned that authenticity matters more than compliance to some artificial standard, knowledge does matter more than outward appearances, confidence comes from being true to yourself, and hours spent changing your appearance for somebody else are hours wasted.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! I am working on season 2 of my iHeart Media Podcast PERSONOLOGY. These are psychobiographies of important people in history and what made them tick. Being able to see that even the most successful people in history had psychological issues is very enlightening to people. I am also working on a brand new podcast that I will be hosting for iHeart Media with Seneca Women, a women’s leadership organization, that will answer women’s questions regarding all types of psychological and relationship issues to better their lives. This podcast will provide mental health information and help to people who don’t really have access to a mental health professional themselves.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

Loneliness is a psychological state, not necessarily based on exactly how many people you interact with. Loneliness also correlates with depression and with anxiety. Taken together, mental health professionals are often who “treats loneliness”. As a psychiatrist, it is my job to understand the roots of, causes of, individual nature of and how to help people with loneliness.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

  1. Loneliness often leads to depression. Major Depression has many health consequences including cardiovascular, brain and impact on quality of life. It also has a 15% mortality rate due to suicide.
  2. Loneliness often leads to high anxiety. Anxiety disorders also have health implications and impede one’s ability to function day-to-day.
  3. Social isolation can cause cognitive decline, due to lack of mental stimulation of taking in social information and responding spontaneously to the interactions.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

Loneliness is growing in all age groups, and especially young adults. Given its mental health and physical health implications, it will add significantly to overall poor health and need for more healthcare. It may also contribute to rising suicide rates through deaths of despair, deaths from substance overdose, and suicide.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

Loneliness is not based on the number of people one is connected to, it’s based on the depth of connection to a few. It is the feeling of being devoid of people you can really trust, really feel deeply intimate with and connected to. That is why the surprising age group with growing loneliness is late teens and young adults. This group is especially connected via social media. However, social media does not provide depth of relationship. It does not provide the feeling that another is intimately connected to you or that you can share anything with them, be accepted, be cared for. Nothing feels lonelier than feeling alone while you’re with other people. Having tons of the equivalent of Facebook friends, means a lot of time spent keeping that up, but not time spent building close quality relationships. The result is many in this age group feeling lonely.

Families are spreading out. People easily move for jobs, etc. and the idea that you would stay close to home when you move out is disappearing. This means that the close intimate family bonds you have may get stretched and diminish, which can also lead to loneliness.

Marriage is decreasing. For a host of social, financial, cultural reasons, the rate of marriage is going down. Partnership often provides the intimate close relationship that staves off loneliness.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

— Hone your empathy. Most people are fairly consumed with their own point of view and their own struggles. Standing in other people’s shoes emotionally would help everyone in the sense that there would be motivation to connect with them and understand their point of view. This is what grows relationships of meaning.

— Just ask. People who feel lonely, also often feel insecure and afraid to ask you to get together, to talk, to listen, to connect…even by phone. Ask them first. They need that boost that you would want to, it can help them feel secure enough to keep connecting.

— Spend less time on social media and more time in person. Right now it might need to be in masks and socially distanced, but in-person interactions build and maintain relationships. Social media does not.

— Be willing to listen. Part of feeling connected to others is listening. Listening makes the other person feel truly understood. Offer yourself up as a good listener to others that you notice might be feeling lonely. This would go a long way. Some places are creating “listening benches” where someone waits for anyone who might want to drop in to have a conversation and be heard. This is a great idea and actually has been found to be effective in helping people with depression.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ve been “working on a movement” for quite a number of years now, to obliterate all stigma related to mental health issues. Close to half of all Americans in their lifetime will struggle with a mental health issue, and yet the number one reason they won’t get treatment is still stigma. It’s why I wrote my latest book “The Power of Different”. It’s a topic I speak frequently on. Stigma still exists in many parts of the country, in certain professional groups like even health care workers (!), in certain minority communities, etc.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Michele Obama! She exemplifies a smart, creative, strong female leader. She understands and speaks about how important relationships are in life. In fact, she’s starting a podcast about just that topic! That’s something we have in common and I would love the chance to speak with her about the state of mental health care in this country and the value of close relationships.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @GailSaltz

Twitter: @DrGailSaltz

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