The Cost of Membership to the Lonely Hearts Club

Should Australia follow the UK’s lead and appoint a Minister for Loneliness?

Perhaps you were wined and dined on Valentine’s Day this year. Or, you and yours shunned the holiday as ‘money-grabbing Hallmark nonsense’.

Maybe the day passed with barely a whimper, only a brief sting of resentment towards those around you demonstrably in love. For many, Valentine’s Day was likely a day like any other: to be endured with the familiar ache of loneliness.

Socially-sanctioned days of romance and dying flowers aside, loneliness is believed to be a public health crisis in many parts of the Western world. Defined as a feeling of lack or loss of companionship, a 2016 Lifeline survey found that 60 per cent of Australians often feel lonely and more than 80 per cent of respondents felt that loneliness was increasing in society. A recent Red Cross survey about the causes of loneliness revealed that the death of a loved one was the most common reason for loneliness, with 34 per cent of respondents attributing their loneliness to loss.

Other causes cited included moving away from friends or family (31 per cent), isolation at school or work (22 per cent), divorce or separation (21 per cent) and job loss (17 per cent).

Loneliness has typically been characterised as an affliction of the elderly. Primarily, this is because many of the risk factors for loneliness tend to accumulate for older adults including bereavement, loss of mobility, lower income or loss of independence.

However, researchers have also identified a peak in loneliness during adolescence and young adulthood. While there is little empirical evidence in the area, loneliness in the young is often attributed to an increasing reliance on technology and social media that makes people increasingly available and visible but can also leave them feeling disconnected and left out.

The experience of loneliness involves not only private distress relating to a lack or loss of connection but an alarmingly broad list of associated health problems. These problems include an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cognitive impairment, dementia and suicide. It has even been reported that loneliness increases morbidity in a way similar to smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and may be worse for your health than being overweight/obese and physically inactive. There are other, less direct, consequences for general wellbeing.

For example, an investigation by the UK Serious Fraud office found that loneliness in older adults increases their risk of being targeted by financial scams, particularly via phone or mail. This is perhaps not surprising given reports that more than half a million elderly people in the UK report having contact with anyone (friends, family or neighbours) less than once per week. There are similar reports of older Australians being targeted by scammers looking to take advantage of the vulnerability that often accompanies loneliness.

Prior to her murder in 2016, UK MP Jo Cox formed a commission to investigate the prevalence and consequences of loneliness in Britain. One of the recommendations of the commission was the appointment of a specific minister to address the growing issue of loneliness.  In January this year,  the UK acted on this recommendation and, in what feels like the first part of a Black Mirror episode before everything goes wrong and you never sleep again, Tracey Crouch was appointed as the first Minister for Loneliness.  While the role may have been more cheerfully titled the Minister for Social Connectedness (or similar), the new position is a timely addition to the government. It is a move that our own government would be wise to mimic and is a reminder that a dystopian future is never too far away.

One reason we need to be careful about how we measure and respond to loneliness is that, as University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo argues, the occasional experience of loneliness can be healthy and productive – a biological signal that we need to strengthen our social bonds.  Like red-hot pain instructing us to move our hands away from a fire, loneliness might just make us put down the phone and go to the pub.

Dr Jessica L Paterson, Senior Research Fellow, CQUniversity, Appleton Institute

If you are affected by loneliness, considering suicide, or need someone to talk to, the following free services operate 24/7: Lifeline 13 11 14; Mental Health Emergency 13 14 65; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; Mensline Australia 1300 78 99 78

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