The Administration for Community Living (ACL) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health created the challenge to find an online tool to help isolated Americans connect with others and engage in the community.

HHS announced on Tuesday the Mobilizing and Empowering Nation and Technology to Address Loneliness & social isolation (MENTAL) Health Innovation Challenge to address social isolation and loneliness in those who experience it most including older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans.

The selected system will be an easy-to-use online tool that offers recommendations for programs, activities, and resources to help users connect and engage with one another based on their individual needs, interests, and abilities.

The winner will receive $750,000 in prizes and will be announced and demonstrated in January 2021 at CES, an annual trade show produced by the Consumer Technology Association. The system will also be the centerpiece of a national public awareness campaign.

Social isolation and loneliness pose serious health risks and have even been found to be as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Isolated and lonely individuals also face an increased risk of hospitalization, depression, anxiety and suicide, heart failure and stroke, dementia, and premature death.

Research has indicated older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans report significantly high rates of loneliness, and current statistics emphasize the vital need to address the issue, considering the number of older adults who experience loneliness is projected to double by the year 2060, the population of people with disabilities continues to increase, and 22 veterans commit suicide every year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified isolation and loneliness due to additional limitations to social interaction.

"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 Jerome M. Adams, M.D., M.P.H., in the announcement. "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 more information about the MENTAL Health Innovation Challenge, including deadlines and evaluation criteria, click here. Additional information can also be found here.