Loneliness in Australia is on the rise and it’s not just the elderly who are suffering. But how do we address a problem that few people acknowledge and fewer still want to talk about?
When Sarah* was in her 20s, she saw a psychiatrist. There must be something dreadfully wrong with me, she’d decided. She was stressed out all the time, and she had no friends. Even her family was absent.
The psychiatrist was young and inexperienced. Here’s a script, he said. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered there wasn’t, in fact, anything “wrong” with her.
She was simply a young, single mother living in Melbourne on a low income with no support network. A little boy to care for, not much money, bills to pay, hardly anyone to talk to and few moments of joy.
In reality, Sarah, now 42, was awfully lonely.
“Basically it was just really hard for me to maintain housing and money. I had no other problems. I didn’t have a substance issue or anything like that. I just had an extraordinary amount of stress and anxiety over being alone, essentially,” she says.
We think of the lonely as older, frail people, whose wives or husbands or friends have died, leaving them alone and vulnerable. We are living longer and this is the sad reality for many Australians.
But to be young or middle-aged and lonely is also possible, and increasingly, probable. Researchers point to loneliness as an emerging public health issue, with new research showing more than one quarter of Australians say they feel lonely for at least three days every week.
The statistics are concerning to academics and governments. In the UK, a government inquiry led to the appointment in January of a new minister to lead action on loneliness, while in Victoria the MP Fiona Patten last month called for a Minister for Loneliness to help address the negative physical and mental health effects of loneliness.
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These are positive steps, but loneliness is still not well understood and many find it a source of great shame. It will be difficult to address such a pervasive problem if people cannot talk openly about it or know how to seek help.
Anyone can feel lonely
At its core, loneliness is a normal, human emotion that many of us feel when we’re unsatisfied with the quality of our relationships. We can have friends but still feel we’re not truly connecting to anyone, or we may be living alone and feel isolated. The feeling often settles when we satisfy our need for social connection, but it becomes harder to budge when we can’t, as when a partner dies or family moves away.
Swinburne University loneliness researcher Dr Michelle Lim says the risk factors for loneliness, such as people living alone, are rising. Loneliness can touch anyone, with young people particularly at risk.