An epidemic of loneliness

(Photo: Shutterstock/Sopradit)

The ABC has recently surveyed over 50,000 Australians for their Australia Talks program, asking questions from job security and sexual habits to national pride and personal finances. The results have been analysed and, according to the ABC Chair Ita Buttrose, the data on loneliness is the most surprising and disturbing.

Is loneliness really an issue as important as climate change, the state of our Education system or the Australian economy?  Yes!

A meta-analytic review published by PLOS Medicine found that loneliness increases the risk of death more than factors such as poor diet, obesity, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise, and is as harmful as heavy smoking.

However, most people are not aware of these statistics.  Research from the UK and United States indicated that when asked to rank the importance of various factors for health – social integration and social support were ranked last. However, the quality of social connections is four times more important as a predictor of retirees’ physical and mental health than the state of their finances.  This lack of understanding is a reflection of the fact that there is very little conversation round the implications of loneliness and health.

Who is feeling lonely?

The Australia Talks survey has uncovered worrying data about the prevalence of loneliness and its effect on our health.

In particular, it found that certain sections of the community were more likely to feel lonely.

  • Young people: 30% of people aged 18 – 24 said they felt lonely “frequently” or “always” and 32% said they “rarely” or “never” felt lonely. This is in sharp contrast to older people, 71% of whom said they “rarely” or “never” felt lonely. As the stereotypical image of a lonely person is of an elderly person, we need to update our data as well as our thinking.
  • Inner-city dwellers: Those who live in the inner suburbs are less likely to say they “never” feel lonely (15% vs 20%) but are more likely to said they “occasionally”, “frequently” or “always” do (50% vs 42%) in comparison to people living in rural areas. Once again, this is contrary to the current thinking that people who are physically remote from others suffer more from loneliness.  However, these statistics adhere to the psychological reality of loneliness.  People’s health and wellbeing is closely linked to the strength of their connection to, and identification with, groups and communities of various forms.
  • One Nation voters: a disproportionately high number of One Nation voters (9%) reported they were “always” lonely compared to only 2% of followers for each of the other parties. The understanding is that feeling disconnected from the world often drives people to find solace in marginal political movements.  In fact, it is known that this is the typical path for many to become supporters of multiple forms of extremism.
  • People on low incomes: poverty, it would seem, is a predictor of loneliness. 21% of those who earn less than $600/week “frequently” or “always” feel lonely, compared with people who earn more than $3,000/week (10%). This supports the fact that around the world poverty is one of the biggest factors of poor health, particularly depression and other mental health illnesses.

As a society, we certainly need to look at how we can rebuild group-based social connections which are being lost in this stressful, 21st century, where community of all kinds is constantly under threat.

This article was first published on ABC news.  To find out more about Australia Talks, watch ABC TV or iView.