Loneliness: Our Public Health Problem

Australians aren’t known for talking about their problems, or for reaching out to others. This needs to change, because social isolation is on the rise and its effects are alarming.

A survey by Lifeline in 2016 found that over 80 per cent of respondents thought the feeling of loneliness was increasing in Australia. Two-thirds said that they often felt lonely. Research last year by Relationships Australia also found loneliness and isolation on the rise.

Loneliness can be a killer. 

A Stanford University study found that older people who are socially isolated experience poorer health and have a risk of death that is 31 per cent higher than those who are not isolated.

Loneliness presents a significant public health problem, and one which urgently needs to be addressed in Australia. We have to recognise what it means for people’s lives, and work on solutions.

A leading academic in this field of research is Professor Alex Haslam from the University of Queensland. In February, together with other academics, Professor Haslam published research in Social Science & Medicine that found while the majority of people were aware of established health risks such as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and alcohol consumption, there were few who saw social factors, particularly loneliness, as of the same level of importance. 

Dr Michelle Lim of Swinburne University of Technology has noted the relationship between the emotional and psychological effects of loneliness and the physiological effects, such as the negative impact on brain processes, the regulation of stress and the severity of mental health symptoms. She says, strikingly, that it can be as bad for us as smoking or obesity. 

Loneliness is a problem to which there are solutions.

In a recent address, Professor Haslam highlighted the extraordinary positive impact of involvement in social networks. To highlight this, in the town of Frome in the UK, a project launched by a local GP found that, by providing support from community groups and volunteers, the lives of socially isolated people with health problems were significantly improved. Over a three-year period, emergency hospital admissions in Frome fell by 17 per cent. 

We can take heart from this example, but not comfort. For a start, loneliness cannot simply be tackled through a single type of response. We need to build up a conversation about the importance of being socially connected and the negative impacts of being isolated. There are some profound questions we need to address about how we relate to one another and how we sustain communities. This is affected by increasing inequality. As gaps in life experience increase, so does the scale of this challenge.

When the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes took a look at this issue in 2007 it found that loneliness was a serious problem for people of all ages. This survey pointed to an alarming incidence of loneliness amongst younger Australians and raised the question of the impact of social media on this. It’s time this research was updated, not least because it appears that technology is driving a trend away from face-to-face interaction and engagement.

There is important work being done overseas, notably by the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. In 2017 the commission published the Combating Loneliness One Conversation At a Time report, challenging the May government to step forward and lead a renewed push to tackle loneliness. It did, through ministerial appointments, supporting community groups, developing a strategy on loneliness that will bring together governments and service providers, research on the impact of initiatives to tackle loneliness, and establishing indicators for loneliness.

It’s time for Australia to follow suit. Along with Julian Leeser, the Liberal Member for Berowra, I have moved a private members’ motion calling for a national response from the Australian Government. This needs to be a bipartisan concern, but we can’t wait for the Liberals to get on board. Labor, the party of collectivism, has to lead in the fight against isolation – working with groups, such as the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness.   

A good society lets no-one slip through the cracks. As individuals we can and should all reach out to those around us, but we must also make ending loneliness a national priority.

About Andrew Giles

Andrew Giles

Andrew Giles is the Federal Labor Member for Scullin in Victoria. Prior to being elected in 2013, Andrew was a principal lawyer at Slater & Gordon, practicing in employment law, where he helped people uphold their rights at work and resolve the issues they face in their workplace.

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