Loneliness as a social issue has recently been receiving more attention across Australia and overseas. Researchers, community organisations and policy makers are increasingly exploring the causes of loneliness, its impacts, and the best ways to address it.
There is a lot we still don’t know about loneliness, including why certain age groups report higher levels of it and what factors can lead someone into a more chronic experience. What we do know, however, is that it is a complex social problem.
Causes and effects of loneliness
Loneliness is an intricate and unpleasant set of feelings that occur when a person’s intimate and social needs are not adequately met. The feelings can arise from a dissatisfaction with relationships and are often caused by from periods of exclusion and isolation. It is a subjective experience, quite different from the objective experience of being alone or socially isolated.
Social isolation can involve external factors like living alone and having few social networks, and people who have poor or limited social contact are often considered ‘at risk’ of social isolation. However, in reality, a person might have a small social network but not feel lonely, while someone else might have a large social network but still experience loneliness.
So significant are the potential effects of loneliness that it is now regarded as a public health concern. It has been linked to:
physical health impacts similar to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day
an increased risk of heart disease
poor mental health outcomes, including increased suicidality.
Awareness and action
In recent years, we have become more aware of loneliness across communities—particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, creating prolonged periods of social isolation for many people.
At Relationships Australia we know—both from what we have seen through our services and from research—that loneliness was not uniquely a pandemic experience. However, COVID-19 certainly brought the issue to public awareness, with reports that as many as 1 in 2 adults experienced loneliness as a result of the pandemic.
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Governments and health authorities have taken some significant global steps towards identifying and responding to loneliness, including:
the establishment of a Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection (GILC)
the creation of a ministerial responsibility for addressing loneliness in several countries, including the UK and Japan
an advisory issued by the US Surgeon General, which raised alarm about the devastating impact of loneliness in the US.
In Australia, a network of researchers, community organisations and passionate individuals have formed a coalition called Ending Loneliness Together (ELT). ELT is contributing knowledge through research and practice experience to increase the understanding of loneliness, its causes and successful interventions.
Relationships Australia is proud to be a founding member of ELT, being in a unique position to speak on loneliness. We have clinical experience supporting clients who experience loneliness, have conducted pioneering research, and manage a social connection campaign that supports people to create connections to combat loneliness.
Loneliness: the numbers
Our 2022 Relationship Indicators study found that 1 in 5 Australians said they ‘often feel lonely’. When indirect measures of loneliness were also considered, this figure increased to almost 1 in 4 Australians (23.9%).
Relationship Indicators explores two different types of loneliness: social and emotional. The study found that while young people (under the age of 25) were more likely to feel emotionally lonely, they had a lower experience of social loneliness than all other age brackets. The research confirmed the findings of earlier studies that social loneliness peaks for people aged 35 to 44 and those aged 55 to 74, while emotional loneliness decreases as people age.
While there is no doubt that loneliness is harmful to people’s physical and mental health, it’s difficult to develop a comprehensive and coordinated response because of the highly personal nature of the issue. Any person’s experience of loneliness ideally needs an individually tailored response. Nonetheless, we can still do much to combat the problem at a societal level.
Social connection as an antidote to loneliness has been studied extensively, both in Australia and overseas, with researchers now firmly agreeing about its importance in shaping wellbeing across the life span, particularly in later life. So in order to address loneliness, we must address the social barriers that inhibit connection, through a variety of individualised and community-based solutions.
About Relationships Australia
Helping people develop the skills to build and sustain the meaningful relationships they need is at the heart of what we do at Relationships Australia, and we believe this work is part of the answer to tackling Australia’s loneliness crisis.
Through our Neighbours Every Day campaign, we have been working to develop ways for communities to connect and create belonging. Our research shows us that people who take part in this campaign are likely to feel they have a greater sense of identity within their communities, are more connected and, as a result, feel less lonely.
Campaigns such as Neighbours Every Day are grassroots measures to tackle loneliness by supporting and empowering people to create social connections. Although such measures aren’t a complete solution, they are part of a range of initiatives that can be tailored to each person’s individual needs.
We are confident that as the issue of loneliness gains ground in the minds of decision-makers and researchers, more support will become available to anyone in Australia who is experiencing loneliness. By continuing to promote and support respectful and long-lasting relationships as a society, Relationships Australia believes we can end loneliness, together.
Resources about loneliness
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