Mind

Tiana Gullotta

New public health crisis: Why loneliness is on the rise

New public health crisis: Why loneliness is on the rise

The ability and necessity for humans to socialise goes back to the time of cavemen where they would live together in small groups to survive. Even though we may not have the lifestyle of cavemen anymore, we still possess the need to be around people and the desire for social contact and interaction.

Loneliness is increasing in Australia, with one in four Australians reporting feeling lonely at least one day a week. The reality and impacts of loneliness are so damaging that experts are warning people of a “loneliness epidemic” and explains what social isolation looks like in practice.

Dr Michelle Lim, from Swinburne University of Technology, and the scientific chair of the Australia Coalition to End Loneliness, says that chronic loneliness is on the rise and shouldn’t be ignored.

Loneliness can occur within many people and in many forms. Many of us, although we might have friends and appear connected, lack strong and meaningful connections that enhance our lives and encourage positive physical and mental health and wellbeing.

There are many reasons why Australians might feel lonely. Some factors include social isolation, being disconnected from social support and others due to geography and mobility.

Alan Woodward, Lifeline’s executive director of research and strategy, discussed how the impact of work and our current economic and social changes contribute to the increase in social isolation within Australia.

He highlights that there is a higher percentage of people today that are pursuing economic opportunities away from home, either interstate or overseas.

"The rise of different ways of working including the fly-in fly-out models mean that people are less likely to remain in place for employment," Woodward said.

Dr Lim supported Woodward’s claims stating that in the past "many of us would work in a community and live in a community, but now people are willing to travel".

"If I'm living in Hawthorn but working somewhere that, with traffic, is an hour away, that's two hours of driving time every day. Those kinds of factors do influence our ability to connect."

Unemployment has been shown to severely increase loneliness rates amongst both men and women. Men who were experiencing career hardships were particularly lonely.

"Our family size and family connections have changed," says Mr Woodward, highlighting the ways we live influence our happiness, mental health and social connections. Over time, young persons from 15 years and older living on their own has increased from nine per cent to 12 per cent according to ABS data. This has consequently increased social isolation and loneliness.

The Australian Loneliness Report published in 2018 discovered that 17 per cent of their responders that reported feeling lonely were living on their own.

"We are a relatively large country, and sometimes we find ourselves living far away from loved ones," Woodward added.

Single parents are greatly susceptible to loneliness, 38 per cent for males and 18 per cent for females. Although the highest rates of female social isolation were for those aged 25-29 and correlated with the average age of becoming a first-time mother.

Meanwhile, Australia’s ageing society is not being provided with opportunities to develop social connections, community and social wellbeing.

"We're moving toward a situation where over one quarter of the population will be over 65," Woodward explained.

"We have insufficient aged care facilities that actually promote community and social wellbeing," added Dr Lim.

Due to contrary belief, international studies have found that young people between the ages of 16-25 are at the greatest risk of loneliness according to Dr Lim. Young people of Australia have increasingly reported higher levels of loneliness, depression and social interaction anxiety, it was found in the Australian Lonely Survey.

In that age group "you have emerging mental illness as well, with high rates of anxiety and depression", Dr Lim said. She also discussed the influence of different stages of life for young people, including moving for work, developing personal identities, starting full-time employment and finishing school.

Another significantly affected group are the elderly.

"You have the older people, who experience loss of health, loss of mobility, loss of finances," Dr Lim explained. The Australian Loneliness Survey concluded that the over-65s are the least lonely age group.

Although, Lim argued for the elderly community, "The moment you hit illness, or your partner dies, or maybe there's a lot of health, you can’t get out of the house, it may be a completely different game."

Another study, Relationships Australia, reported that people aged 55-64 experience decreasing levels of social support and emotional loneliness in relation to ageing. Further, after 64 years old, social support rates continue to drop, with a quarter of over-65s living alone, as well as a rise in emotional loneliness.

Loneliness and social isolation are also dependent on gender and can look and be interpreted in different ways between males and females. Men experience higher levels of loneliness compared to females, although females report higher rates of emotional loneliness. Married people were less likely to be lonely compared to single or separated people.

The highest rates of loneliness were reported by young widowed men followed closely by divorced or separated men, according to the Relationships Australia research.

Additionally, socially excluded groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, migrants or the LGBTI community are at a higher risk of experiencing loneliness. People with mental illnesses may find it difficult to interact with others and to experience social engagement. Physical disabilities also impact people’s capability of going out for work or social events.

"Wherever there are elements of social exclusion in our society, where people because of their background – whether it be their gender identity or sexual orientation or the nature of their work or ethnic background – wherever there are forces to exclude them socially,” added Woodward.

Major life transitions can severely influence the impact of loneliness on a person. The transition may be a major move, a relationship breakdown, a death of a loved one or the birth of a child. These factors "have a flow-on effect in terms of a person's social connections" and lead to social isolation, concluded Woodward.