More than half of all Australians say they lack companionship. This widespread sense of isolation and disconnection with family and society comes at huge personal cost
The latest health issue to face Australia is the problem of isolation, disconnectedness and sadness.
At his lowest, Ben Hirst texted his Mum. “Hey,” he wrote, “I’m not doing so well, can I come home?” That was a big first step for the then 25-year-old Tasmanian chef who had lost his way in the darkness of his loneliness. “It took me a long time to send that text message,” he now admits. “There was no way I could have gotten the words out. It feels too real when they come out of your mouth.”
Splitting up with his girlfriend of six years had rocked Hirst to his core. Even though it was a mutual break up, for the first time in his life he felt lonely. He was drowning in it, he says, sinking deeper with each day. The gnawing feeling of emptiness was always with him. Before summoning the courage to reach out to his Mum, Hirst pretended everything was OK because he was just too embarrassed and ashamed to admit it wasn’t. “It’s really hard to open up and talk to people about your feelings,” Hirst says. “Blokes like to brush things aside and really not tackle feelings head on. I couldn’t bare my own thoughts. I didn’t know how to cope with my own company. I stayed in my bedroom because it was a safe place and I drank and slept too much. It was hard to get up and I had lost the energy to try. I kept thinking: ‘what’s the point’?
Loneliness is a set of feelings of distress people experience when their social relationships are not the way they would like. Australians are more lonely than we’ve ever been and experts are warning loneliness could be the next public health epidemic. It can strike anyone, but young people aged 18-25 are particularly susceptible — they are in the highest risk category because they often lack strong and meaningful relationships.
The recently released Australian Loneliness Report, from Swinburne University of Technology and the Australian Psychological Society, found one-in-four people are lonely, while 55 per cent of the population feel they lack companionship at least some of the time. Nearly 30 per cent of people feel they are not part of a friendship circle. The report surveyed about 1600 Australians from all walks of life, across all age groups.
Lead researcher Dr Michelle Lim — who is also the chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness — says loneliness is extremely damaging to our mental and physical wellbeing.
Other studies, including research from Utah’s Brigham Young University done in 2015, suggests loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The researchers of the Utah report, which studied the data of more than three million people, found chronic and prolonged loneliness increased a person’s mortality rate by 26 per cent, a similar risk to living with chronic obesity. Dr Lim says people with higher loneliness levels report more physical health symptoms, including sleeping troubles, headaches, stomach upsets, nausea, cold and infections. It also increased the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, depression and eating disorders.
Dr Lim says we are born with an innate need to connect with others. “We have a fundamental need to belong,” she says. “We are not designed to be alone.” Loneliness is part of a biological warning machine just like hunger, thirst and pain. Loneliness exists because the social interactions we desire are not being met. So we need to listen to that painful, empty feeling of disconnection that we call loneliness and change our behaviour to seek safety in numbers.”
Mitch McPherson knows from experience how forcing yourself to connect with people in dark times can help. Founder of SPEAK UP! Stay ChatTY — a charity that promotes positive mental health by breaking down the stigma of talking about it — lost his younger brother Ty to suicide six years ago. McPherson says he had to push himself to connect with people at that terrible time. “If young people can get themselves out of their bedroom and safe haven, it can be the smallest but biggest step forward,” he says. “When people are going through the worst times of their life, these dark and lonely times, they need to break their isolation.”
McPherson is first to admit that’s not easy. His charity has just received a million dollar state-government boost to enable his team to continue working with Tasmanian high school students in relation to their mental health. He’s spoken to hundreds of our adolescents in six years and says he believes one of the solutions to loneliness is encouraging kids to join a team. “There are lonely young people in schools all over Tasmania,” McPherson says. “It’s really sad to see. Sometimes I leave those schools feeling really flat for what those kids are going through. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a team sport or a music or drama group joining a team builds emotional connectedness and that helps to break down loneliness. Young, lonely people need to push on and find someone to connect with either at their school or in their community.”
University of Tasmania social connection researcher Peta Cook says Australian governments are not properly tackling loneliness. “In the UK they have appointed a minister for loneliness,” Dr Cook says. “In the United Arab Emirates they have a minister for happiness. These countries are taking the emotional state of their people seriously.”
Dr Cook says we can’t just rely on grassroots and community organisations. “We need leadership from the top as well,” she says. “You can see the effect of loneliness everywhere.
“It’s not an easy thing to solve, it’s a massive social issue but a very personal experience.”
Hirst, who is also an ambassador for SPEAK UP! Stay ChatTY, recognised he was in the bottom of a deep pit, but says he could not dig his way out because he needed to talk to someone. Three years of loneliness had morphed into deep depression. “Blokey cultures can be quite toxic because you don’t speak up – you are worried about what they are going to think of you,” he says. A new job provided the chance for him to make new friends and Hirst started talking, not deeply about his past, but he says it was just nice to talk to someone about something and those diverse conversations really helped him to heal. Still, he was too often saying no to new opportunities.
It was his mum who pushed him out the door one night when a new female acquaintance had invited him out and Hirst was thinking of not going. That friend, Jess, is now his wife and the mother of his two gorgeous girls. She’s also his support person he calls when he reaches rock bottom during the mammoth 200km ultra runs he passionately tackles to raise awareness and break down the stigma attached to mental health.
Raising awareness of mental health is the reason Hirst shared his story with TasWeekend in the midst of Movember. “These types of runs expose you to isolation and loneliness,” he says. “I can battle inner demons in the middle of an unfamiliar place. It can leave you feeling defeated. But I’ve learnt that knowing you have a support crew — people who love you — can help you push on. My wife helps encourage me to keep going. You need to have that human interaction to lift you up because you can’t do it on your own.”
Running and the real connections that came with it, Hirst says, saved him. “I felt like I was working towards something,” he says. “I was finally out of my room experiencing amazing places.”
At his worst, he had all the time in the world. Hirst now has to juggle his precious time between the three people he loves most in the world and his running. “You can come from any background and battle through anything, but it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve things beyond your wildest dreams.”
If you or someone close to you is suffering from a mental health condition, including depression, help is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue 1300 224 636