By Kim O’Neill, CEO, On the Line
The evidence of a new public health threat is mounting. Society has ignored this threat for too long and now researchers and politicians are warning that we’re in the midst of an epidemic. This epidemic is one we all recognise. Loneliness.
Loneliness is increasingly being classified as a disease: one that effects people of all ages and walks of life. And it’s killing us slowly. Loneliness now kills more people annually than people than obesity.
The problem is growing. A recent survey from the Australian Red Cross found that as many as 5.6 million Australians are suffering from loneliness, with young men most likely to feel lonely.
As CEO of a counselling business that helps more than 100,000 people feel better each year, I see and hear about the impact of loneliness on people’s lives and our society every day. The top three reasons that people contact our services are to discuss their relationships (41%), talk about loneliness (22%) and their mental health issues (13%). People contacting us about loneliness has almost doubled in the last two years. An epidemic indeed.
Loneliness is at the core of many mental, physical and social health challenges and can also play a role in larger societal issues, including the many forms of violence. Looking at ways to address loneliness and its impact on our society is something I’m passionate about, and in the coming weeks and months you’ll hear a lot more from me about this topic. We’ve all felt lonely at some point in our lives, but few people recognise the true impact of loneliness on their own health and wellbeing, let along one society in general.
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what we mean by the term “loneliness”.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a feeling of sadness or distress about feeling disconnected from the world around you. Leading researcher John Cacioppo defines loneliness as “a debilitating psychological condition characterized by a deep sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of control, and personal threat.”. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted.
In the past, loneliness has been confused with social isolation, but is actually a state of mind. It’s possible to feel lonely even when surrounded by people. Psychologists insist that loneliness must be seen as an intrinsic experience, not an external and objective condition.
Pioneering psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann believed that loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and the more we learn, the more evidence there is to support her beliefs. Her 1959 essay, “On Loneliness,” hypothesised that loneliness boils down to the want of intimacy. The psychological definition of loneliness hasn’t changed much since then, but it’s only fairly recently that public perception has begun to catch up.
Loneliness depends more on the quality of a person’s relationships than on numbers – just look at the tales of social media stars with thousands of ‘friends’ who nonetheless feel lonely. What’s missing for lonely people, is not just social contact, it’s about meaningful contact. Closer personal relationships are what really matter and it seems our modern world is making this harder to achieve.
The fundamental human need for connection, left unmet, still has the power to kill us—just by a slower, less visible mechanism. In fact, numerous studies have shown that it may increase the risk of premature death by as much as 50 percent.
The way forward
It’s been nearly 20 years since Robert Putnam’s best-selling book ‘Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community’ first warned us about changes in society driving new levels of isolation and alienation. Our ageing population and increased life expectancy means that the issue will only become more urgent as time goes on. Distressingly, loneliness has also skyrocketed among teens and young adults in recent years, a phenomenon often blamed on social media.
We’ve seen that for the first time, the UK has appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle the scale of this issue across Britain. It’s time Australian politicians and policy makers started taking this loneliness epidemic just as seriously and start investing more time and money in social health.
Collectively, we need to take action and treat loneliness as a public health threat, pursuing ideas like emphasising social skills training for kids in school and adding ‘social connectedness’ as a key health indicator.
Loneliness is crippling modern life as we know it. We must all take action now to ensure our future is not just about survival, but that we can all learn to thrive again.
Join me in raising awareness of loneliness and its social impact in our country, and in making loneliness a social health and economic imperative for all Australians.
 VanderWeele, T. J., Hawkley, L. C., Thisted, R. A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). A Marginal Structural Model Analysis for Loneliness: Implications for Intervention Trials and Clinical Practice. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(2), 225–235. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0022610
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