Last weekend, my youngest son graduated from college. The easing of COVID-19 restrictions allowed us to be there in person to watch him walk across the stage, diploma in hand. It was definitely a proud mama moment! Yay, Will! But the event also prompted some serious introspection for me, especially after listening to the class speaker's insightful comments about a condition many of his fellow college students and others across the globe experienced during the year of COVID -- loneliness.

After noting highlights of the school year followed by inside jokes that inspired delightful explosions of laughter from the robed and tasseled graduates, the speaker got serious. He eloquently and accurately described aspects of loneliness that I believe all of us experienced at some point over the last 14 months: The cloud of isolation that descends after bombing a test and feeling as if everyone else is smarter and will be more successful than you will ever be. The sad solitude felt when alone in your dorm room on a Saturday night while everyone else seems to have a party to attend. And the desolation experienced when separated from friends and family while in a COVID quarantine.

The past year helped bring the negative effects of social isolation for college students into focus. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research reports that 86% of college students who participated in a survey said they experienced decreased social interactions because of COVID. And 71% said they had increased levels of stress and anxiety. In another study, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report that first-year college students say they had an increased rate of anxiety and depression during COVID, and that social isolation and adjusting to distance learning are likely two key reasons.

As we all know, another group struggling with the negative effects of social isolation during the pandemic were/are the elderly, especially those in communal facilities. When my mother's assisted-living facility closed its doors to visitors and nonessential workers last year, I panicked. She had metastatic breast cancer and needed her children and people from outside organizations to help with daily chores and medications. I couldn't bear the thought of her being alone, especially as she faced a serious illness. But I also knew many people were in the same situation.

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Loneliness is fraught with negative health and wellbeing complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that social isolation increases an elderly person's risk of many serious health issues, including dementia, depression, suicide, heart disease, stroke and premature death. We are social animals and we need each other in order to thrive.

I'm so glad that long-term care facilities, schools and other organizations are finally opening and that COVID restrictions are easing. And I'm hopeful that the pandemic as a whole will continue to diminish. Perhaps one of the so-called silver linings of the year of COVID is our collective acknowledgement of the need to help socially isolated people connect. It really doesn't take a whole lot of effort to pull someone up and out of the darkness of loneliness. I saw how a quick, 15-minute visit with one of my mom's hallmates brought the twinkle back in her eyes.

As we move closer to the time when we can put masking and social isolation behind us, I'll leave you with some thoughts that I heard the day my son graduated from college: All of us experience the crushing weight of loneliness, an issue the COVID-19 pandemic made drastically worse. But we've learned a lot. Together we can identify those at risk in our own lives and offer an outstretched hand to help pull them from isolation into a meaningful and healing human connection.

Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at vwilliams@newsmd.com.