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Loneliness - A Growing Concern


- Image created by Microsoft Bing AI
 Hot on the heels of St. Valentine’s Day, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns us that we are in the midst of a Loneliness Epidemic. Loneliness can be defined in various ways, but for now let’s just say it is the negative feeling we get when we have too little connection to other people or not the kind of relationship we would like.
According to WHO's global data, loneliness is most prevalent in young people aged 18 -24 (59%)  and second highest (54%) among those between 25 -34. Beyond those years, feelings of loneliness gradually decline with age, with around 22% of people aged 65 and over reporting being lonely. However, there is considerable variation between and within countries, between age groups and even between males and females.
A systematic review and analysis of surveys conducted in 133 countries, found that that loneliness was highest (14.4%) among adolescents in Eastern Mediterranean regions and lowest (9.2%) in South East Asia. While adults in Northern Europe experienced the least loneliness (2.7% - 5.2%), people in Eastern Europe reported between 7.5% and 21.3%.  A 2022 study found that 49.63% of adults in the UK experienced loneliness some or all of the time. 
The figures for other countries can be found at Statistica, but you may need to sign up or log in. Data sets may vary somewhat depending when and how surveys were conducted - e.g. face to face as opposed to anonymous online surveys, and how questions were worded. Data from low to middle income countries remains scarce.

Are we getting Lonelier?

Loneliness has always been part of the human condition and the inspiration for much literature, music and song. However, because there have been few longitudinal studies, it is not possible to say whether loneliness is increasing. Indeed, according to a comparative chart in Our World in Data, loneliness appears to have fallen in many European Countries, the USA and the UK since 2005. 
In Australia, numbers of adults reporting loneliness have fallen somewhat since the height of the pandemic, but in October 2022, 36% of adults still reported feeling lonely. By contrast, despite a slight uptick beginning in around 2007, school students in the USA were reporting significantly less loneliness in 2015 than in previous decades. So why is loneliness suddenly in the headlines?

Why we are hearing more about Loneliness

Recent research has shown that loneliness is a major contributor to ill health.  One study likened the risk of premature death from loneliness as being similar to that from other lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, obesity and even smoking.  Below is a list generated by AI of other conditions which have been linked to loneliness.

Why do so many people feel lonely?

Life events such as divorce, loss of a partner, retirement or relocation may cause people to experience temporary or permanent feelings of loneliness. Migration, whether rural to urban, or to another country can also separate people from families and support networks. Just having my children leave for college left me with a deep sense of loneliness.

The Pandemic 

Although the pandemic has been blamed for increasing disconnection from others due to lock -downs, school closures and a shift to home -based work, at least one Australian study found that social contact has been falling for all age groups and particularly for those aged 15 -24 since 2001.  

The Use of Electronic Devices

While growing use of electronic devices and social media my be responsible for fewer face -to -face interactions, their negative impact has been refuted by other studies which show that many people also find connection and support online. See more on this below.

More People Living Alone 

Although more people are living alone, it correlates only slightly with loneliness, though an Australian study found that older men living alone were more likely to be affected than women in the same situation.

What can be done about Loneliness?

Improving social connection

Social isolation - having little social contact and few relationships, isn't always related to loneliness - you can have few contacts and not feel lonely or you can feel lonely in a crowd, but it is among one of the more tangible ways to help people to overcome loneliness. This means removing barriers to greater participation in society such as teaching people how to use the internet and making sure that they are able to access buildings, transport and activities outside their home.

Seldom mentioned is having sufficient means to do so. One hint that this may be so, is that higher income countries in Northern Europe with more generous welfare provision and social support, also have lower levels of loneliness.

For individuals, having a paid or volunteer job, or caring for another person, may help though not all studies support the idea that volunteering will bring relief from loneliness. Other avenues include being actively involved in sport or getting a pet. Being in a relationship is important for those aged 25 -44.

Help Lines

People experiencing acute loneliness can and should avail themselves of helplines such as Lifeline in Australia or the Samaritans in the UK. They in turn, may be able to direct people to agencies or therapists to assist with recovery. For chronic loneliness, the Australian Red Cross operates a volunteer telephone service which phones the elderly or housebound on a regular basis. Other organisations run services such as  Meals -on -Wheels or provide transport assistance, which can ensure some informal contact. These shouldn't be too difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Unfortunately, mental health care is underfunded in this country as I am sure is also the case in many others. Beyond assistance with an immediate crisis, there doesn't appear to be much to help people over the longer time it might take to recover from the loss of a loved one, to cope with a difficult diagnosis or even retrenchment after many years in the same job. It would seem to me a good place to invest more attention and funds to save long term dislocation and withdrawal from society. If you must have an economic justification, think of the productivity gains if up to a third of the population wasn't lonely and depressed. 

Peer to Peer Support

Some schools are doing this very well by training responsible students to be able to respond to possible issues such as bullying or exclusion, but once young people leave school or home, there may be few avenues for them to seek help.

In the early 70s I was part of a group trained by a team of doctors and other professionals to support young people who were experiencing an emergency such as a drug overdose, arrest or unwanted pregnancy. At the time, drugs, abortion and homosexuality were all illegal, but we knew doctors, lawyers and others who were likely to be sympathetic and we would accompany people there if they wanted that.

We also had a helpline and a drop -in centre in premises donated by the local council. People could come in and help out or just sit and chat or look through the notice boards for things like rooms to let, forthcoming concerts and so on. There's no reason that something like this couldn't be done via the internet.

Indeed, son spends many hours helping people in chat rooms and in a gamer community he is a part of. Members support each other on and offline and he has formed some deep friendships in the process. It's one of the reasons why I don't condemn social media. I use Twitter -whatever Elon likes to call it, the same way and of course, many people also find true love and happiness or even just friends via the many dating sites – though you do have to careful and be alert for scams. [I make no guarantees or recommendations].

Shared projects and goals also bring people together in an unstructured way. I think it's one of the reasons why Men's  Sheds, Community Gardens and the Repair CafĂ©s work so well. The trick is to find something which makes you happy, because happiness is attractive in itself, but you may also find someone who shares your passion and you would certainly have something to talk about. 

-Image, some information and references were generated with help from Microsoft Bing AI.