Loneliness is common, distressing and bad for our health. It seems rates are rising in our community, and with the impact of the pandemic. The topic of loneliness comes up with radio work that I do, and GPs have long been aware of loneliness issues amongst their patients, and the impact on health and wellbeing.
Let’s look at a few questions about loneliness and explore it a bit more.
What is loneliness?
There is a difference between being alone or socially isolated, and loneliness. You can have people around you, and still feel lonely, or you can be alone and not feel lonely. The key is that loneliness occurs when there is a lack of meaningful connections with others. Humans are social creatures, and we need contact with others.
How common is it?
Globally, loneliness is now considered to be a serious public health issue. A 2018 study by the Australian Psychological Society found that 1 in 4 people said they were currently experiencing loneliness, and 50% said they felt lonely for at least one day each week (1).
Who feels lonely?
Most people will feel lonely at some points in their lives. Loneliness occurs across all age groups, but is more common in those living alone and those with children, and in young adults, and males (2). You can be more at risk of loneliness is you belong to a minority group, are experiencing stigma or discrimination, or have had significant trauma in your life (3).
What causes loneliness?
Society has changed over time. More people live alone now, or in areas away from family (2). Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to loneliness as they may not have developed coping skills and being accepted by others is such an important issue at this age. Loneliness can be linked to life events or times of change, such as after a bereavement, during a relationship breakup, job change or loss, retirement, or moving to a new area. And some people feel lonely at times such as Christmas or Easter.
Our time with COVID-19 has seen a rise in loneliness in the community, maybe related to coping with a disaster, and social isolation with lock downs, working from home or not seeing family and friends.
What about social media and loneliness?
The relationship between social media and loneliness is complex. There are benefits to connections through social media, but these can seem shallow and not the same as face-to-face connection (e.g. having touch). Time spent on social media can also take focus off relationships.
How does loneliness affect our health and wellbeing?
Loneliness has been linked to a range of physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and lowered immune function. People may smoke more, be less active and have worse sleep, which all impact health and wellbeing. Studies show social isolation has been linked to mental health issues as well, including depression, suicide, alcoholism and dementia (4). A recent study showed that when people who were being treated in the community for mental health problems felt lonely at the start, did not recover as well and had lower quality of life (5).
What can we do about loneliness?
As a society, we need to be aware of the cost of loneliness to the community, in terms of social effects, health and economics. Some countries have Government Ministers for Loneliness in recognition of the extent of the problem. Community programs which help connect people are vital.
As individuals we can:
- Stop comparing our situations to other people as everyone’s lives are different. Some people have large families, some very small or estranged families, for example.
- Look after our health and wellbeing e.g. get some exercise and reduce smoking, alcohol or substance use, which may be self-treating loneliness.
- Become more comfortable with being alone, in terms of how you think about it, and engaging in activities e.g. cooking, gardening, working in the shed.
- Work on your sense of self-worth and confidence, through reading and courses.
- If you find relating socially challenging, do some work on this e.g. online social skills training, reading or seeing a therapist.
- Go out and about and smile and chat with others.
- Enjoy companion pets.
- Stay connected with any friends or family via phone, social media and in person.
- Join in with community programs which connect people, whether sporting clubs, creative activities, community gardens or education-based.
- Create connections at work or volunteer.
- Be kind to ourselves, as well as to others. Be empathic and assist others.
- Get support when needed e.g. GP, counsellors, online services or therapists.
Check out supports such as
- Beyond Blue 130224636
- Kids Helpline 1800551800 or headspace 1800650890
- Mensline Australia 1300789978
- Suicide call back service 1300659467
- Local community health centres and Council programs.
(1) Australian Psychological Society 2018. Australian loneliness report: A survey exploring the loneliness levels of Australians and the impact on their health and wellbeing. (https://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/items/c1d9cd16-ddbe-417f-bbc4-3d499e95bdec/1/). Melbourne, APS.
(2) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2019. Social isolation and loneliness. (https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness). Canberra, AIHW.
(3) Mind for better health, 2019. Loneliness. (https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/). UK, Mind.
(4) Mushtaq, R., Shoib, S., et al. 2014. Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health? A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness, Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 8(9).
(5) Wang, J., Llloyd-Evans, B., et al. 2020. Loneliness as a predictor of outcomes in mental disorders among people who have expericned a mental health crisis: a 4-month prospective study, BMC Psychiatry, 20, 249.