Leaders from across a variety of industries and community groups met in Melbourne in early April to discuss how the community can help people living with chronic loneliness. WayAhead Senior Manager Marge Jackson was invited to attend this leadership roundtable event.
“The way that we discussed loneliness during the roundtable was in terms of social connection. We all need social connection, it is a fundamental human need, and loneliness is the feeling that we have when we don’t have that social connection. Usually when we feel lonely then we will do something to make a connection with others, but there are people who live with chronic loneliness and have no way to make a meaningful social connection,” said Ms Jackson.
The leadership roundtable also discussed the differences between being socially isolated and lonely.
“Isolation is a different thing all together. You can still live in a big city, go to an office with lots of people in it every day and feel lonely. If you don’t have good quality connections in your workplace or your community, that’s when the loneliness kicks in,” said Ms Jackson.
The high-risk times for loneliness are during transition periods. For example, when young people graduate school, leave home, start university in a different city not knowing anyone. Another high-risk time is when people lose a partner. “We also know that loneliness can become a habit and people become used to it, which is when it turns into chronic loneliness. In terms of life expectancy, experts compare the effects of loneliness on life expectancy to smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said Ms Jackson.
Technology also has a role to play in helping overcome loneliness, with apps like MeetUp where people can find activities and events in their local area attended by others looking to meet new people, but technology is also part of the problem.
“Things like Facebook can make people feel very lonely. Some people might have 300 Facebook friends but have no real meaningful social interactions in a day.
“One of the interesting things to me from our leadership discussion was that, we all know people who are lonely, yet we don’t do much about it. So, when people are lonely around us, what are we doing about it? The issue is not just for the people feeling lonely, it’s for everyone interacting with lonely people, how can we empower them to make a meaningful social connection?” said Ms Jackson.
WayAhead believes it is important to be working in loneliness prevention as people living with chronic loneliness don’t always have the resilience, coping mechanisms or social network to manage tough times. One of the best ways to boost resilience is through quality social connectedness.
The leadership group wants to make loneliness a public health issue and groups such as The Coalition Against Loneliness will continue to meet and raise awareness of chronic loneliness, so meaningful solutions can be established. The group also believes that chronic loneliness needs to start being discussed around board tables, like mental health is.
“The reason why Boards should be discussing this is because the health outcomes for people who are chronically lonely are not good, and that in turn can affect businesses, productivity and ultimately the economy,” said Ms Jackson.
WayAhead advises anyone who feels like they may have chronic loneliness to call our helpline 1300 794 991, and we can put you in contact with community groups in your local area, who can help you break the loneliness cycle.
WayAhead also acknowledges that social anxiety may also be preventing chronically lonely people from seeking help.
“If you have social anxiety, then you can give us a call on our information line and we can take you through what the options are to treat social anxiety. There is a school of thought that if you treat the social anxiety you could stop the loneliness from occurring in the first instance. Another option is attending one of our anxiety support groups, where you can hear from others and know that you are not the only one experiencing the same anxiety in social situations,” said Ms Jackson.
Ms Jackson said that her longer-term hope was for a community which plans for the needs of lonely people and through a variety of measurers works to end loneliness.
“In the longer term what we would like to see is that when we are designing our community, part of the planning considerations is, what are we doing here that will make people more or less lonely? I also hope that as human beings we are more compassionate and willing to reach out to each other, we get back to the basics and look out for each other.”
By Ben Graham