SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Two years since the pandemic started, researchers are now starting to get a better idea of its impacts on our mental health.

Doctor Robert Roose, the Chief Medical Officer at Mercy Medical Center, said loneliness was already a problem, but now there’s signs the pandemic made things worse.

At AIC Wednesday, Roose said loneliness is the biggest public health issue facing people now, saying it is about as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“Even when controlling for other factors, loneliness was showing that it had a 50 percent increased risk of early death,” Doctor Roose said. “The value of connections could not be understated.”

Loneliness is when you see a difference between the amount of human connection you want to have, versus what you actually have. A survey in 2019 found 61 percent of Americans felt lonely, a seven percent jump from 2018. However with the pandemic, we’re starting to see the impacts it is has on mental health.

In Massachusetts, researchers found more than a quarter of adults needed mental health care in the first year of the pandemic.

In 2021, a nationwide study determined students who felt close to people at school were less likely to report feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or seriously considering attempting suicide.

“Students who felt virtually connected to others were also less likely than those who were completely lonely, but the effect was a lot less,” Doctor Roose said.

The lecture on loneliness also marked milestone for AIC, it was the return of Desmond Tutu Public Health Awareness Lecture Series, for the first time since the pandemic started.