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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

- 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.

 ??  ?? Taylor Horwood and daughter, Maisy, 14 months, Olivia McGowan with two-year-old daughter Evie and Amanda Lee and her eight-month-old baby girl, Ella, support each other as they deal with the isolation and loneliness that can come with new motherhood. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe
Taylor Horwood and daughter, Maisy, 14 months, Olivia McGowan with two-year-old daughter Evie and Amanda Lee and her eight-month-old baby girl, Ella, support each other as they deal with the isolation and loneliness that can come with new motherhood. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe
 ??  ?? Young mothers helping each other ... Taylor Horwood with Maisy, 14 months, Olivia McGowan with Evie, 2, and Amanda Lee with daughter Ella, eight months. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe
Young mothers helping each other ... Taylor Horwood with Maisy, 14 months, Olivia McGowan with Evie, 2, and Amanda Lee with daughter Ella, eight months. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe
 ??  ?? Andrew Giles, Labor MP from Victoria, and Fiona Martin, Liberal MP from NSW, are the co-chairs of the new group Parliament­ary Friends of Ending Loneliness.
Andrew Giles, Labor MP from Victoria, and Fiona Martin, Liberal MP from NSW, are the co-chairs of the new group Parliament­ary Friends of Ending Loneliness.
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