Make a friend — or die

Why lone­li­ness is a grave prob­lem


First it was smok­ing. Then HIV. Next, obe­sity and life­style dis­eases. Now lone­li­ness is be­ing flagged as the ma­jor new threat to peo­ple’s health and longevity.

The “lone­li­ness epi­demic” in many coun­tries could pose a greater haz­ard than obe­sity or smok­ing to pub­lic health.

So­cial iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease the risk of pre­ma­ture death, says Ju­lianne Holt-Lun­stad, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science at Brigham Young Univer­sity in Utah.

Strong friends and fam­ily bonds re­duce this risk, but these take time and ef­fort and are in­creas­ingly dis­rupted by vir­tual re­la­tion­ships.

“We’re find­ing our homes are no longer homes. They’re just like dorms from work and school,” says Khayelit­sha ther­a­pist An­dreas Banetsi Mphunga. “Peo­ple put their bags down and take off their shoes, and then fa­thers and moth­ers go onto LinkedIn and Face­book and chil­dren onto In­sta­gram and they have no con­nec­tion any more.”

He has been coun­selling a child who told him: “I’m sit­ting with my fam­ily but I feel like there is no one there and I’m lonely. I do not have data and they are on so­cial me­dia. I’m un­able to con­nect with them.”

A fa­ther and daugh­ter are not talk­ing to each other be­cause of a rift over so­cial me­dia. “She used go to her room when she came home and the fa­ther doesn’t want to pro­vide air­time any­more. This is putting a wedge be­tween them and it is a huge issue,” he says.

Kids who spend all their time with their cell­phones and head­phones on will not learn the in­ter­per­sonal skills to be happy, he says, rec­om­mend­ing that bound­aries get set and de­vices switched off at times.

He is teach­ing chil­dren in schools these skills and en­cour­ag­ing them to get out into com­mu­nal spa­ces and play to­gether.

Older peo­ple in South Africa have his­tor­i­cally re­ceived sup­port from ex­tended fam­ily net­works but these are be­ing eroded, says Mphunga. “Ex­tended fam­ily bonds are get­ting weaker and the gap be­tween im­me­di­ate and ex­tended fam­ily is widen­ing, es­pe­cially among younger mem­bers.”

So­cial me­dia is only one chal­lenge in a world where lone­li­ness is in­creas­ing — and pre­dicted to get worse.

Cassey Cham­bers, op­er­a­tions man­ager at the South African De­pres­sion and Anx­i­ety Group, says: “When we get calls from peo­ple who may be deeply de­pressed or even sui­ci­dal, lone­li­ness is of­ten a con­tribut­ing fac­tor.”

Work, or lack of jobs, are also ob­sta­cles to so­cial bonding. Pro­fes­sion­als who work flat out of­ten have no en­ergy left for friends or fam­ily, while peo­ple who are un­em­ployed can get iso­lated. If you do not have enough milk and sugar for the week, you can­not in­vite your neigh­bour over for tea, says a res­i­dent of Gins­berg in the East­ern Cape, blam­ing poverty for the wors­en­ing iso­la­tion. The shadow of so­cial iso­la­tion stretches far and some groups, like be­reaved spouses or new moth­ers, are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble. Take 40-some­thing tech exec Julia from Joburg. The first years of rais­ing her daugh­ter alone iso­lated her and she was fre­quently ill, which ex­ac­er­bated this cy­cle. “Be­ing con­sumed with motherhood meant I saw al­most no one else ex­cept very tena­cious friends for weeks,” says Julia, who had re­cur­ring low-level glan­du­lar fever. Her daugh­ter got sick fre­quently when she started preschool and Julia would pick up these in­fec­tions, and had no time to keep fit. “I got sick. I got so de­pressed and felt very alone and my back suf­fered. My back and neck are my stress barom­e­ter,” says Julia, who is so­cially ac­tive and healthy again. Univer­sity of Cape Town psy­chol­o­gist Dr De­spina Lear­month, who spe­cialises in health, says a cou­ple of close friends are enough for most peo­ple to feel sup­ported de­spite the pres­sure to have hun­dreds of Face­book friends. “We need so­cial sup­port to feel ac­cepted and loved. When peo­ple feel lonely their stress hor­mones are up and their im­mune func­tion is lower.”

Lear­month sug­gests that peo­ple reach out to oth­ers in daily life. “Try to talk to three new peo­ple a week, just say hi when walk­ing the dog or when you are out.”

She also en­cour­ages bring­ing vul­ner­a­ble groups, like el­derly peo­ple and or­phans, to­gether, in safe ways.

Psy­chol­o­gist Vera Roos of North-West Univer­sity has found older peo­ple are more prone to lone­li­ness in res­i­den­tial care fa­cil­i­ties.

Dis­cov­ery Vi­tal­ity clin­i­cal spe­cial­ist Dr Deepak Pa­tel high­lights a Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health study which found that so­cial in­te­gra­tion helps to de­lay memory loss in older peo­ple. “The study found that the least in­te­grated in­di­vid­u­als ex­pe­ri­enced memory de­cline twice as fast as did the most in­te­grated and this as­so­ci­a­tion also ap­plied to younger peo­ple.”

He re­it­er­ates that so­cial iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness have been as­so­ci­ated with phys­i­cal prob­lems, in­clud­ing sleep dis­rup­tion, raised blood pres­sure, heart dis­ease and cog­ni­tive de­cline.

Essen­tially lone­li­ness is a sig­nal to peo­ple to re­con­nect, says Lear­month. “Lone­li­ness is like hunger or thirst, a sig­nal we need to do some­thing to en­sure our sur­vival.”

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