Loneliness

Loneliness

Loneliness and social isolation are fast becoming some of the most troubling problems affecting Australians of all ages. The AIHW in September 2021 reported that most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives (Relationships Australia 2018).

CATEGORY: Emotions

SOURCES: APS | verywellmind.com | BMD | aihw.gov.au

Number: #1

 

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An Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing released in 2023, of 5,500 people aged 16 to 85 years old during 2020-2021, showed that more than two in five Australians experience a mental health issue in their lifetime and that in 2020–21 more than 3.4 million Australians sought help from a health care professional for their mental health.

The study is published at https://abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing/2020-21

Between 2001 and 2009 an estimated 1 in 3 (33%) Australians reported an episode of loneliness, with 40% of these people experiencing more than 1 episode, according to a study of loneliness using data from the longitudinal Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey (Baker 2012). In surveys undertaken since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over half (54%) of respondents reported that they felt more lonely since the start of the pandemic (Lim et al. 2020).

While research clearly shows that loneliness and isolation are bad for both mental and physical health, being alone is not the same as being lonely. In fact, solitude actually has a number of important mental health benefits, including allowing people to better focus and recharge.

Loneliness is marked by feelings of isolation despite wanting social connections. It is often perceived as an involuntary separation, rejection, or abandonment by other people.

Solitude, on the other hand, is voluntary. People who enjoy spending time by themselves continue to maintain positive social relationships that they can return to when they crave connection. They still spend time with others, but these interactions are balanced with periods of time alone.

Loneliness is a state of mind linked to wanting human contact but feeling alone. People can be alone and not feel lonely, or they can have contact with people and still experience feelings of isolation.

Psychological Impacts

Social isolation and loneliness can be harmful to both mental and physical health. They are considered significant health and wellbeing issues in Australia because of the impact they have on peoples’ lives. Some of the measures implemented to manage COVID-19 most likely exacerbated pre-existing risk factors for social isolation and loneliness, such as living alone.

Social isolation is seen as the state of having minimal contact with others. It differs from loneliness, which is a subjective state of negative feelings about having a lower level of social contact than desired (Peplau & Perlman 1982).

Some definitions include loneliness as a form of social isolation (Hawthorne 2006) while others state that loneliness is an emotional reaction to social isolation (Heinrich & Gullone 2006).

Loneliness has been linked to premature death (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015), poor physical and mental health (Australian Psychological Society 2018; Relationships Australia 2018), and general dissatisfaction with life (Schumaker et al. 1993).

Social isolation has also been linked to mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, the development of dementia, premature death, poor health behaviours, smoking, physical inactivity, poor sleep, and biological effects, including high blood pressure and poorer immune function (Hawthorne 2006; Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015). Social isolation is also associated with sustained decreases in feelings of wellbeing (Shankar et al. 2015) and life satisfaction (Biddle et al. 2020c). Conversely, more frequent social contact is associated with higher life satisfaction and overall health (Wilkins et al. 2020).

Prevention

Having paid work and caring for others are important safeguards against loneliness. Engaging in volunteer work and maintaining active memberships of sporting or community organisations are also associated with reduced social isolation (Flood 2005).

Pet ownership can be a guard against loneliness and social isolation. A survey found 60% of owners felt more socially connected as a direct result of owning a pet (Petplan Australia 2016). Pet ownership has been linked to increased social contact, for example, through facilitating contact with neighbours and acting as a trigger for conversations (Wood et al. 2015), which may help counter social isolation (McNicholas et al. 2005).

Being in a relationship is a greater protective factor against loneliness for men than for women (Baker 2012). Women living with others and women living alone report similar levels of loneliness, while men living alone report higher levels of loneliness than those living with others (Flood 2005). During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living with family reported less loneliness compared with people in other living situations (Lim et al. 2020).

Although social isolation and loneliness are now well-recognised public health concerns, there is little research into what works to resolve them (Smith & Lim 2020). One possible intervention is social prescribing, wherein patients are linked to social supports in their communities (Bickerdike et al. 2017)

There are some government initiatives primarily aimed at older Australians, including the national Community Visitors Scheme which supports local organisations to recruit volunteers who provide regular visits to Australians in receipt of Commonwealth-subsidised aged care services (Department of Health 2020). The Seniors Connected Program encompasses two activity streams: existing phone support service delivered by Friends for Good (FriendLine); and Village Hub projects across Australia, which bring older Australians together to support good mental and physical health.

Therapy | Treatment

Loneliness can be overcome. It does require a conscious effort to make a change. In the long run, making a change can make you happier, healthier, and enable you to impact others around you in a positive way.

Here are some ways to prevent loneliness:

Consider community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.

Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead, try focusing on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.

Focus on developing quality relationships. Seek people who share similar attitudes, interests, and values with you.

Recognise that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change. Don’t expect things to change overnight, but you can start taking steps that will help relieve your feelings of loneliness and build connections that support your well-being.

Understand the effects of loneliness on your life. There are physical and mental repercussions to loneliness. If you recognize some of these symptoms affecting how you feel, make a conscious effort to combat them.

Join a group or start your own. For example, you might try creating an online group where people from your area with similar interests can get together, there are websites that facilitate this kind of social connection. You might also consider taking a class at a community college, joining a book club, or taking an exercise class.

Strengthen a current relationship. Building new connections is important, but improving your existing relationships can also be a great way to combat loneliness. Try calling a friend or family member you have spoken to in a while.

Talk to someone you can trust. Reaching out to someone in your life to talk about what you are feeling is important. This can be someone you know such as a family member, but you might also consider talking to your doctor or a therapist. Online therapy can be a great option because it allows you to contact a therapist whenever it is convenient for you.