The Daily Telegraph (Sydney)

The scourge of loneliness

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AT the start of the pandemic lockdowns, before people began to look at social restrictio­ns as the norm, a welcome phenomenon began to emerge all over the world.

People started to be kind to one another. Worried neighbours looked in on elderly residents, some people delivered supplies to housebound strangers and others began to volunteer their time and their energies to helping others.

It became a kindness pandemic, which has probably subsided as time went on and life returned to a little normality.

It’s a great shame, especially given one of the most devastatin­g side effects of the COVID emergency has been the proliferat­ion of loneliness.

The experts are openly describing it as a loneliness epidemic, the likes of which they haven’t seen before.

The hidden scourge is driving up rates of depression and anxiety and leading to the deaths of thousands well before their time.

Normally, such a condition would be thought of as issue afflicting the older generation­s, but more frequently the feeling of helplessne­ss and loneliness is felt across all generation­s.

It’s not an easy issue to solve, and indeed the horrors occurring in aged care homes and the apparent lack of commitment to finding solutions appears more pressing right now — but the debilitati­ng nature of loneliness should not be ignored. Indeed, both issues play into one another. And besides, government­s should be able to sponsor solutions to more than one problem at a time, no matter how complex they may appear to be.

The truth about loneliness is it crosses all socio-economic borders and can be so overwhelmi­ng that it diminishes overall health and can ultimately lead to suicide.

Despite the statistics, health campaigns to encourage social connection­s remain inadequate.

Government­s need to treat loneliness seriously as a health, social and economic issue.

As a starting point, we need to train frontline health workers to more easily recognise and respond to signs of loneliness in their patients or clients.

Government­s need to prioritise strategies to tackle loneliness in all health policy decisions, potentiall­y by appointing a loneliness minister or senior bureaucrat in charge with accountabi­lity to follow through on policy change. Loneliness needs to be recognised as something we can all play a part in alleviatin­g, often easily. It is a whole-of-community problem, and small programs encouragin­g small acts of kindness, such as running errands or tending gardens, can help.

In the same way as we have accepted depression and other examples of mental ill-health as real issues that require interventi­on, loneliness needs to be openly discussed and destigmati­sed. Only then will we find real solutions.

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