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.”