WHY LONELINESS MATTERS
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
What is loneliness, what impact does it have on our mental health, and what do we need to do safeguard ourselves from its effects?
Loneliness is a major risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, depression and premature death.
Loneliness may not be a mental health issue in itself, but it can cause mental health problems such as depression and social anxiety.
In Australia, the UK and elsewhere, there has been a steady increase in the number of government and community support programs targeting social isolation and loneliness – but more needs to be done.
Loneliness can affect anyone. And according to experts on the subject, it’s a condition that’s becoming increasingly common.
According to the IPSOS Global Advisor Survey, February 2021, as many as one third of all adults feel lonely often, always or some of the time. Australians fare little better than the global average, with 30 per cent of adults stating that they experience loneliness at some stage. What’s worse, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 per cent of Australians reported that they became more lonely in the six months prior to being surveyed. According to Dr Alex George, UK Ambassador for Youth Mental Health, young people are especially vulnerable, with half of all mental health issues starting before the age of 14.
The effects of this loneliness epidemic are significant and ought to be a major concern to all of us. There is evidence to suggest loneliness is linked to poorer academic achievement and reduced liking of school. Research links loneliness with poor physical health, mental health and poor personal wellbeing, producing an elevated risk of depression, heart disease and stroke, inflammation, dementia and premature death.
Loneliness also looks likely to be a significant predictor of both suicidal ideation and behaviour, with depression potentially a link between them. There is strong evidence that loneliness and poor social support predict worse outcomes for people with depression.
Link between loneliness and mental health
Loneliness is not considered to be a mental health issue in itself, but mental health problems such as depression and social anxiety can cause loneliness. The opposite effect can also be true, with loneliness having the potential to cause mental health problems.
There is a similar relationship between loneliness and dementia, with loneliness capable of causing cognitive decline and dementia potentially leading to people becoming lonely.
A report called ‘The Psychology of Loneliness’ by the Campaign to End Loneliness goes to great lengths to explain the powerful impact loneliness can have on individuals. It says that people who feel lonely associate how they feel with words such as anxiety, fear, shame and helplessness.
“These powerful emotions can influence how we act. They can create a downward spiral where loneliness causes someone to withdraw further from family and friends, become more apprehensive or fearful of social situations or pick up on social rejection cues too readily, and so become lonelier.”
Challenges in measuring the extent of loneliness
There are acknowledged difficulties associated with reporting on social isolation and loneliness. There is a lack of information about the experiences of those who suffer from loneliness and a lack of universally agreed upon definitions.
Some of the measures implemented to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, such as physical isolation and lockdowns, have had the potential to exacerbate pre-existing risk factors for social isolation and loneliness, such as living alone. The full effects of the pandemic on loneliness are not yet fully understood.
An independent review for the UK Government entitled Tackling Loneliness, however, provides us with the one of the best guides to understanding those most at risk. The review identified that certain cohorts report loneliness in higher-than-average numbers. These people include:
single or widowed people
those living with a limiting mental health condition
Government initiatives to address loneliness (in the UK)
In 2018, the UK Government launched its first strategy for tackling loneliness called ‘A Connected Society’. The strategy, which laid the foundations for a shift in how the government views and acts on loneliness, set out three core objectives:
Reduce stigma by building the national conversation on loneliness, so that people feel able to talk about loneliness and reach out for help.
Drive a lasting shift so that relationships and loneliness are considered in policy-making and delivery by organisations across society, supporting and amplifying the impact of organisations that are connecting people.
Play our part in improving the evidence base on loneliness, making a compelling case for action, and ensuring everyone has the information they need to make informed decisions through challenging times.
The UK Government has since introduced a number of measures aimed at tackling the issue of loneliness. In its third annual report published in February 2022, it outlined its work across government and society more widely to drive action on tackling loneliness and support a connected recovery from COVID-19. Among its objectives are:
Publishing the UK Government’s Tackling Loneliness Network (TLN) Action Plan in partnership with TLN members.
Delivering the £4 million Local Connections Fund in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund.
Continuing to support organisations to take action through the Tackling Loneliness Hub, the UK Government’s Social Connection Funders Group and its Loneliness Evidence Group.
Reaching more people than ever through loneliness campaign activities, including through a Loneliness Engagement Fund to target the groups most likely to experience loneliness.
Unlike Australia, the UK Government has a Minister of Loneliness whose role is dedicated to advancing measures to tackle loneliness and social isolation. Japan also has an assigned Minister for Loneliness and Isolation.
During the UK’s Loneliness Awareness Week in June 2021, the two ministers held their first online meeting and released a joint message expressing their willingness to work together. The message stated that “the UK and Japan firmly believe that tackling loneliness is an important international challenge. Today, we face severe challenges posed by the global prevalence of COVID-19, and this has deepened our common understanding that ‘connecting’ people is key to tackling loneliness.
“The UK and Japan jointly lead the global community on this agenda by sharing our knowledge and experience through close dialogue. We recognise that loneliness could happen to anyone and are determined that the stigma of loneliness must be overcome. Connecting family, friends, neighbours and supporters within our communities is a vital step to overcome loneliness, and our policies must support this.”
The two ministers have agreed to strengthen their bilateral cooperation on tackling loneliness in three ways:
Conducting regular meetings between the two countries.
Sharing knowledge on loneliness measures and policy.
Raising awareness of loneliness in the UK and Japan, and within the global community.
Government initiatives to address loneliness (in Australia) In Australia, there has been a steady increase in the number of targeted government and community support programs addressing the issues of social isolation and loneliness. Governments at all levels have all provided funding and support to local councils and community organisations so they can roll out grassroots programs.
One such example is the national Community Visitors Scheme, funded by the federal government, which supports local organisations to recruit volunteers to provide regular visits to Australians in receipt of Commonwealth-subsidised aged care services. Another is the Seniors Connected Program, which provides a phone support service and Village Hub projects in support of good mental and physical health for older Australians.
In May 2021, Ending Loneliness Together partnered with R U OK? and the Australian Psychological Society to petition the federal government to implement a strategy to tackle loneliness in Australia. Their ‘National Strategy to Address Loneliness and Social Isolation’ in Australia proposed a number of solutions to address two identified gaps: 1) the lack of community awareness about loneliness and how to manage it, and 2) the absence of uniform standards and guidelines within community and mental health systems.
The document said a national strategy on loneliness and social isolation can deliver the following benefits:
Reduce excess costs to healthcare by improving prevention and early intervention so people can manage their own loneliness as much as possible.
Reduce demand on general health, youth services, aged and community services and mental health specialist services by redirecting socially vulnerable people to appropriate, effective, low-intensity community support.
Foster prevention and reduce the prevalence of loneliness in the Australian population by increasing effective and appropriate avenues of recovery for individuals experiencing or at risk of loneliness.
Increase community awareness of loneliness and social isolation as well as equip Australians with the skills and confidence to manage their distress and support others struggling with loneliness and social isolation.
Improve transparency over outcomes achieved by services and providers, both within and beyond the healthcare system tackling loneliness and social isolation.
The Groundswell Vision
Social isolation and loneliness do not discriminate – and both have been shown to be significant factors in increasing rates of mental health.
While governments in Australia, the UK and around the world have invested in programs to mitigate the effects of loneliness and mental health, it is clear there are gaps that need to be filled. Investment is needed to address both issues and the debilitating impact they have on people at all levels of society. It’s no exaggeration to say that what we are witnessing is one of the largest public health crises ever seen.
As we re-emerge from the lockdowns that have been a been a major feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the enforced self-isolation that has accompanied it, Groundswell Foundation aims to tackle the issue head on. We exist to support research, advocacy and activities to effect change in how loneliness and mental ill-health are addressed here – and globally.
Through our fundraising campaigns and our lobbying efforts, we aim to bring about lasting change that can benefit those most in need.
6 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/ attachment_data/file/936725/6.4882_DCMS_Loneliness_Strategy_web_Update_V2.pdf