Not alone in being lonely
SPECIAL REPORT: Depression and anxiety are driven by increasing rates of loneliness and it’s not just making us sad, it’s making us sick, writes Ellen Whinnett
STRUGGLING new mum Olivia McGowan started a support group to help other young mothers deal with feeling isolated and alone.
And they’re not alone. All over Australia, a hidden epidemic of loneliness is driving up rates of depression for hundreds of thousands of people, prompting calls for a government-led solution.
AUSTRALIA is facing a hidden epidemic of loneliness that is driving up rates of depression and anxiety and causing people to die years before they should.
With hundreds of thousands of people feeling desperately alone, researchers and mental health professionals are sharpening their focus on the negative effects of loneliness, which have been magnified by the COVID-19 lockdowns across Australia.
Experts say loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking, and that people can die from it.
Yet health programs which seek to improve people’s mental and physical health by boosting their social connections remain ad hoc.
This is despite an Australian Psychology Society study in 2018 which found one in four Australians feel lonely on three or more days every week.
Today, News Corp launches a campaign called
Never Walk Alone to put the spotlight on the issue and provide solutions.
A researcher who specialises in social connection, Professor Alex Haslam, said loneliness was increasingly being put on the radar of researchers and health professionals.
“You only have to go back two or three years and nobody was talking about this at all,’’ he said.
“The zeitgeist is changing, the public consciousness is changing and I think that’s really important.” A professor of psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, Prof Haslam said a lonely person would, generally speaking, “not be in a good space’’.
“Often, those people will feel very marginalised,” he said. “Loneliness will be one aspect of their experience but there’s other things too.
“Disease and illness thrive on loneliness in interesting ways.’’
Prof Haslam said he believed people could die as a result of their loneliness.
“I think so. It’s not what it’s going to say on their death certificate; it’s going to say other things like their immune system doesn’t work so well.
“If you’re lonely and that’s correlated with being alone, you’re going to lack social support.
“If you’re lonely and on your own, other people aren’t going to help you when you need help.’’
Academic and clinical psychologist Michelle Lim said loneliness was not restricted to any single group in society and could be felt by anyone.
Dr Lim, scientific chairwoman of the new peak body Ending Loneliness Together, also said people with lower socio-economic status were disproportionately affected.
“We know that loneliness is an increasingly common complaint in developed countries like the UK, the USA and Australia,’’ she said.
“It’s not just your older person in a nursing home who experiences loneliness, it’s the young doctor working in a hospital. There are significant complexities.’’
Dr Lim is a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and has examined programs which aim to connect with isolated people.
A new white paper, Ending Loneliness Together, examines how Australia should respond to loneliness from a policy point of view.
Dr Lim said that sometimes a lonely person saw a different volunteer every time they were paid a visit, making it impossible to build a meaningful connection.
“These sorts of programs, you know what the (key performance) indicator sometimes is? One minute. What can you achieve in one minute?’’ she said.
American academic Julianne Holt-Lundstad’s seminal research paper Social Relationships and Mortality Risk, published in 2010, first established that loneliness was as dangerous to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity,’’ the study found, after it had reviewed 148 global health and wellbeing studies.