Challenge seeks online tool to help socially isolated Americans connect and engage
Today, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health 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. And 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 is being 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/MENTAL and at https://www.challenge.gov/challenge/MENTAL-health-social-isolation-challenge.
About the partners for MENTAL Health Innovation Challenge:
- The Administration for Community Living (ACL) was created around the fundamental principle that older adults and people of all ages with disabilities should be able to live where they choose, with the people they choose, and with the ability to participate fully in their communities. By funding services and supports provided by networks of community-based organizations, and with investments in research, education, and innovation, ACL helps make this principle a reality for millions of Americans.
- The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health oversees the Department’s key public health offices and programs, a number of Presidential and Secretarial advisory committees, 10 regional health offices across the nation, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
- In 1976, Congress established the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to provide the President and others within the Executive Office of the President with advice on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of the economy, national security, homeland security, health, foreign relations, the environment, and the technological recovery and use of resources, among other topics.
- The mission of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is to fulfill President Lincoln's promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans. Within the VA, the Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated health care network in the United States, with 1,255 health care facilities serving nine million enrolled veterans each year.
- The Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. An independent U.S. government agency overseen by Congress, the Commission is the federal agency responsible for implementing and enforcing America’s communications law and regulations.