Dr Michelle Lim writes for the Reason newsletter, with an insight into the significant social problem loneliness presents, as well as the potential for government innovation.
Everyone has felt the sting of loneliness. Many manage the discomfort and distress.
Many can’t, for reasons outside their control.
They may not have resources. They may be shackled by other debilitating health issues. Many slide into enduring distress.
Then there’s the stigma. Sadly and unduly, people can feel ashamed about being lonely. This can stop or delay them from acting.
Loneliness has many faces – as many as there are humans. Many might imagine an older person, perhaps a widow or widower, or maybe a single person. And so maybe you are one of the many perhaps overlooking an unwelcome lack of meaningful connection and the desire and need to change that.
Loneliness means being distressingly unsatisfied with your personal and social relationships. Often, this simply means too few people with whom to talk and share daily existence.
But it is equally, if not more, about the quality of your relationships. Their depth. Their endurance. The trust. The confidence. The security.
Right now, it might seem like no one has your back and there is no one you can turn to or talk to, even if you are around others.
Loneliness kills. It is as big a predicator of preventable premature death as morbid obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Unsurprisingly, it undermines mental health. We are social being. It is an existential need.
Research showed that before the pandemic, one in four Australian residents was experiencing loneliness. The same proportion of Australian households, incidentally, is single-person.
But remember, there’s a fundamental difference between loneliness and solitude - which is sought rather than suffered.
Data shows being socially disconnected is also - of course, given the effect on physical and mental health - an economic threat. Adding to the cost of the health system. Reducing productivity and profitability.
The problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic, making this a propitious moment to fix it.
We have formed Ending Loneliness Together (Ending loneliness together), a coalition of organisations using evidence-based policies to reduce loneliness.
We are partnering with a direct political campaign (Loneliness) to give solving loneliness the profile and resources it has for so long lacked - in a massive missed opportunity and false economy.
It requires a comprehensive national strategy. That’s hard. But it’s worth the effort; loneliness hits and hurts indiscriminately
Across the world, there is attention on loneliness. This year, the World Health Organisation and the European Commission both released reports on this silent killer.
And here, the Ending Loneliness Together in Australia white paper sets out life-and-death issue for Australians of all ages.
It supports the critical work of the Parliamentary Friends of Ending Loneliness co-chaired by Dr Fiona Martin (LNP) and Mr Andrew Giles (ALP).
The establishment of a global network called the Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection, which has the support of the current US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, and an emerging partnership with the World Health Organisation, signal the universality of the issue.
A report by the New Economics Foundation found loneliness in the UK costs businesses up to £2.53 billion per year in illness, caring duties, lower productivity, and staff turnover.
Poor health, unemployment, low income, unpleasant neighbourhoods tend to increase loneliness.
The conservative government there recognised the magnitude of the problem – and the potential to save lives and taxpayers’ money through evidence-based public policy.
They gave the issue specific ministerial responsibility They ran public education campaigns - something the QUIT program to help reduce death by smoking tobacco here shows we do to great effect.
Japan has also assigned the issue a ministerial voice. The nature of our society influences our social connections. More will come - and should here.
Australia can lead in this crucial development.
Each of us has a role – and rights and responsibilities. So do families and households and communities. And governments.