The famed media personality and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer will serve as New York’s loneliness ambassador, a first-of-its-kind role intended to assist an underserved mental health need, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced Friday.
Westheimer, known for her once-prominent radio and television shows as simply “Dr. Ruth,” pitched Hochul on the job last year.
“As New York works to fight the loneliness epidemic, some help from honorary Ambassador Ruth Westheimer may be just what the doctor ordered,” Hochul said in a statement. “Studies show individuals experiencing loneliness had a 32 percent higher risk of dying early and we need leaders like Dr. Ruth to help address this critical component of our mental health crisis.
Westheimer, 95, was jubilant at the news, responding with “Hallelujah!” in the state’s release.
“I am deeply honored and promised the Governor that I will work day and night to help New Yorkers feel less lonely!” she said.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic in May, saying that governments must be prepared to foster all aspects of their citizens’ mental health. He also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic likely worsened what was already a critical concern.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” Murthy said. “Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight — one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.”
More than a third of adults 45 or older experience loneliness and nearly a quarter of those 65 or older are socially isolated, according to a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published in 2020.
Westheimer’s honorary appointment underlines Hochul’s recent emphasis on aging and social needs.
Hochul said the state is working to develop “age-friendly communities” to combat social isolation and is in the process of drafting a master plan of aging, which will contain frameworks to assist physical and metal health.
“We know that social isolation and loneliness is detrimental to one’s mental health, in addition a lack of human connection can also significantly increase the risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke,” State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said.
“I am encouraged to see that Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a person we have learned from for years on television and radio, has been appointed by Governor Hochul to help people cope with these feelings and to form new connections,” he added.