Mar 30, 2021

The public health problem that keeps growing: Loneliness

Lonely old man

‘The loneliness epidemic’ was a phrase coined in 2017 by the then US surgeon general Vivek Murthy. 

With new data out of the UK showing that one in four British adults, or 14 million people, often, always or sometimes feel lonely, it’s easy to see how that description came about. 

In Australia, a 2018 study by the Australian Psychological Society found that more than half (51%) of Australians say they feel lonely for at least one day every week.

And a study the same year by Relationships Australia found that one in four Australians were experiencing loneliness at the time.

COVID-19 has amplified feelings of loneliness right around the globe, with forced periods of isolation and lockdowns, sometimes extending for months at a time, keeping people away from their social connections.

In this article we take a close look at loneliness, what it is, how it affects us, what governments and organisations are doing about it, and what you can do if you begin to feel lonely.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is the uncomfortable feeling of social isolation that arises when an individual perceives that the quality or quantity of their social relationships is less than the quality or quantity of social relationships they desire. 

Loneliness can have a detrimental impact not only on wellbeing and health, but also on productivity and functioning in daily life.

Loneliness is different from social isolation, which is an objective measure of the number of friends, family or other social connections an individual has and the frequency of those connections.

Loneliness is subjective, and depends on how the individual feels about their situation.

More detrimental to health than smoking

Loneliness not only feels uncomfortable, it is also bad for people’s health.

Loneliness has been linked to premature death, poor physical and mental health, and general dissatisfaction with life.

It has been linked with higher rates of depression, heart disease and cancer.

Studies have also shown that loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking.

Making loneliness a priority

The UK’s Office for National Statistics has been monitoring the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on loneliness, and it found that more than one in every four people (27%) reported feeling lonely often, always or sometimes in the days between February 3-7, 2021.

The UK has been proactive in its approach to tackling loneliness.

In 2017, the UK government’s Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness published a report titled ‘Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time: A call to action’. 

In response to the report, the government implemented a loneliness strategy in 2018, which saw a broad range of measures introduced to help reduce loneliness.

The Office for National Statistics measures loneliness in the community, and has established initiatives that enable everyday services to connect with people at risk of becoming lonely, through a process called ‘social prescribing’.

Social prescribing is a way for local agencies to refer people to a so-called ‘link worker’, who gives the person their time, and connects them to community groups and services that can provide practical and emotional support. People can be referred to link workers by GPs, pharmacies, hospital discharge teams, allied health professionals, fire services, the police and job centres.

Tracey Crouch, the UK’s former loneliness minister, would like to see more social prescribing.

“We started using social prescribing in the UK for a whole variety of things, for example, with obesity. So rather than just prescribing people pills that would hopefully suppress appetite, we’d actually get them to do walking clubs or light sporting activities. And so now we’ve rolled out social prescribing. 

“We have link workers in our doctor surgeries that can have a whole list of organisations locally that people can get involved with, to effectively try and make sure that they remain connected in society,” Crouch added. 

Japan has also appointed a ‘minister of loneliness’ in an attempt to reduce loneliness and social isolation among its residents after suicide rates increased during COVID-19 for the first time in 11 years.

Up to 72% of aged care residents are lonely

In Australia, Labor MP Andrew Giles and Liberal MP Fiona Martin have reached across the party divide to form the Parliamentary Friends of Ending Loneliness Together Committee, to advance work in the area of loneliness, including loneliness in residential aged care.

Their white paper on the issue notes there is only “scant” research about the extent of loneliness in residential aged care facilities. 

“Some studies have indicated that the prevalence of loneliness in long-term care facilities varies between 37% and 72%, with rates of ‘severe’ loneliness to be approximately double that for aged care residents compared with community-dwelling residents. 

“Recent visitor restrictions introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with interruptions to residents’ daily activities, means that loneliness is likely to have increased. 

“Yet, despite the negative consequences for quality of life, health and wellbeing, addressing loneliness in this sector has not been prioritised.”

Giles and Martin hope to change this.

The government has run a campaign aimed at increasing the awareness of loneliness as a significant public health issue in recent years, and federal, state, territory and local governments have funded and supported local councils and community organisations to help address the social isolation and loneliness of Australians. For example, the national Community Visitors Scheme supports local organisations to recruit volunteers to regularly visit Australians receiving aged care services.

Helping others is known to be a powerful antidote to loneliness.

Feeling lonely? Here are some simple things you can do

1. Talk to your neighbours

Nextdoor, a social platform that connects neighbours, partnered with researchers on a global study looking into how small acts of kindness can reduce loneliness in neighbourhoods.

They found that knowing as few as six neighbours can reduce the likelihood of feeling lonely and is linked to lower depression, anxiety, and financial concerns related to COVID-19.

They also found that even small acts of kindness, such as saying hello to a neighbour, reduces the likelihood of feeling lonely and isolated.

2. Reach out to others

Pick up the phone and call friends or family. 

While it might seem daunting at first, the Black Dog Institute says, “When you’re feeling your most lonely, you doubt yourself, feel anxious socially, or are just unmotivated and want to be on your own. It’s almost counterintuitive to interact with others, but that’s exactly what you need to do.”

3. Volunteer

Doing something for someone else is a great way to make you feel better about yourself, build meaningful connections in your community, and create a sense of purpose. 

Bolton Clarke’s how-r-u program is a great example of how you can volunteer, but you can also visit Volunteering Australia or Go Volunteer for ideas.

4. Online groups

Online groups are an excellent way to meet up – virtually – with people who share similar interests.

Facebook’s discover section allows you to browse groups by topic and covers everything from fitness to maths, and everything in between. You might even consider starting your own group if you have a particular interest or field of knowledge.

For young people, Reach Out Forums provide a supportive, safe and anonymous space where you can chat to people online who are experiencing similar feelings as you.

5. Spend time with animals

Pets, especially dogs, provide companionship and unconditional love, and have been shown to alleviate feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Dogs also need to be cared for, which gives you a sense of purpose, and they need to be taken for a walk, forcing you to take some gentle exercise and get out into your community, both of which can also reduce feelings you are isolated.

If you need help

If you or someone you know is struggling with loneliness, help is available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14, use their online Crisis Chat or contact the Crisis Text line by texting 0477 13 11 14.

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