The pandemic (I’m sorry to be bringing it up again) has brought loneliness to the forefront of the minds of those who are interested in mental health and wellbeing. While the pandemic was raging and forcing us into isolation – perhaps alone, perhaps in groups of people with whom we were not sympatico – it served to underline for each of us how much we need other people in our lives. I sometimes hear self-proclaimed “loners” say that during pandemic lockdowns they realised they needed people after all, if only in small doses!
Many people don’t recognize that they are lonely. They’ll talk about having “no one to back them up when things go wrong”, “no one to invite to a party” or “no one to come to their funeral” but the word lonely does not pass their lips. Is there some stigma to being lonely? Does it imply personal failure in some way? I wonder if “social disconnection” is a better term to have in mind given that it encompasses both the unpleasant emotional condition (that may be mistaken for, or even lead to, psychological disorders like depression) as well as the practical reality of the situation of isolation.
The impact of loneliness
The American Surgeon General’s recently released report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf highlights some pretty sobering facts about loneliness in our communities.
To quote the report “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day”. Loneliness is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, anxiety and premature death.
I don’t belong to any faith-based group or go to church, so this is not a plug for religion, but I sometimes wonder if our epidemic of loneliness has something to do with the loss of “community” that people feel when they are no longer a member of such groups. In support of that argument, I cite the testimony of a healthy 95 year-old friend who is very active in her local Christian church. My friend says she hasn’t believed in any of that “religious rubbish” for many decades but she really enjoys the company that the church community provides and the opportunity she gets to do things for others.
What can we do?
I’ve been looking for potential solutions to help me help others who are experiencing social disengagement. Since I’ve been on that quest, I’ve discovered a lot of people working hard at a local level to help overcome the loneliness problem.
In my area someone at the local community garden (a wonderful thing in itself) has recognised that gardening is not for everyone and has started some tangential projects. They have bought a commercial coffee machine and are bringing kids from the local high school to the garden to teach them to use it, thus satisfying the gardeners’ caffeine cravings and giving the kids an extra skillset along with some transgenerational interaction. More recently some other non-gardeners in the group started a knitting circle where the knitters can knit and chat in the sunshine surrounded by luscious produce, drink the coffee and interact with the gardeners. Another gardener with a different skillset managed to get a grant from Australia Post this year to run some mental wellbeing workshops in the old clubhouse (the garden is on an abandoned bowling green, another lost source of connection). This latter endeavour created many new connections (including with me!) and attracted people from all over the city.
In a nearby suburb, a guy I know has set up his otherwise unused garage with tables and couches and some music and invites local retirees to come and play bridge or chess one day a week. Some of the attendees, inspired by the music and the company, bring along instruments for an unscheduled jam session.
I also have a friend who volunteers at a place that feeds the homeless. When the meals are over, she sits down with her watercolours, shares her materials and paints with anyone who wants to give it a try.
Who should we be helping?
The surgeon general’s report says that the highest prevalence of loneliness and isolation is “among people with poor physical or mental health, disabilities, financial insecurity, those who live alone, single parents, as well as younger and older populations” other at risk groups include “individuals from ethnic and racial minority groups, LGBTQ+ individuals, rural residents, victims of domestic violence, and those who experience discrimination or marginalization” Are these the people we should prioritise in our efforts to improve opportunities for social connection? Yes, but there is plenty we can do in the broader community as well.
Not everyone wants to join a choir or a book club even though these things are excellent for some – not everyone has the capacity to do so. As a community we need to think creatively about ways to solve the loneliness problem and try to address inequity of access at the same time.
Let’s do it!
Many of us could, if we were so motivated, share some of our interests with others in the community. Perhaps if each of us contributes a little we could solve this loneliness problem for others and contribute to our own wellbeing at the same time.
Think what we could do for the health of the nation!