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

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