Fight the trend: People are more and more isolated

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: I have read study after study documenting that modern people have fewer friends than in previous eras and that, as time goes on, more and more people report feeling isolated and friendless. I am one of them. You have said you often get messages from people telling you how hard it is to make friends. Why do you think so many modern people are so lacking in friends?

Answer: I'd say it's a combination of: the shift from Main Street-type communities to suburban developments, thus putting people in their own isolation tanks (i.e., cars) to get virtually anything done, and replacing the lovely, inviting city stoop or front porch with backyard decks and patios; a demographic shift toward living alone, with U.S. Census data showing a steady decline in household size; and the advances in communications that allow people to detach their work from workplaces and regular working hours.

And, of course, we're only beginning to see the effects of having "friends" at our fingertips. Making plans to meet actual people in an actual place is now so much easier than ever before, but so is keeping people at arm's length and avoiding eye contact entirely.

As a form of proof of our innate craving for excuses to mingle - and of the scarcity of well-planned communities that bring people together instead of stranding them a half-acre lot and an attached garage away from each other - consider for a moment how expensive real estate has become in neighborhoods with a high Walk Score, at least relative to nearby car-dependent alternatives. We want our town squares, and we want them now, because meeting people without them is a lot harder than it needs to be.

Question: My adult sister, 3,000 miles away, has been diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder. She hears voices that constantly harass her and believes they belong to a former boss and/or the mafia. She was in counseling and on medication for a while but didn't like the side effects.

Now she aggressively asserts that she is not mentally ill. She admits she has never seen the people who yell at her, nor do others seem to notice the voices she hears. But she asserts that either they can read her mind or she can read theirs. Any family/friend who suggests she get treated for the illness gets the silent treatment from her.

She just drove away her kind, patient, and caring husband. He wouldn't acknowledge the voices she hears; she thinks maybe he is part of a growing conspiracy to cover for her "oppressors." She has no job, few friends, and is not near any family.

I would love to encourage her to go back to counseling, and maybe try different medicines. What can/should I do for her?

Answer: Please contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness ( There are excellent programs for people with a mental-health condition, and also for their families. The help line is 800-950- 6264.

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