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What is loneliness?

New research shows that Australians are feeling lonelier than ever before – and certain groups are at particular risk.

Human beings are social creatures. Since time began, we have lived, worked and survived through our connections with others. Loneliness was once a primal instinct and people lived and hunted in small communities, to protect one another from predators.

Rachel Cohen, Clinical Psychologist at the Black Dog Institute, says loneliness is a sense of feeling emotionally or socially disconnected from others. “It's a psychological state rather than a physical one – you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.”

A workplace giving partner of Australian Unity, Black Dog Institute is a not-for-profit research group that works to understand, treat and prevent mental illness. It defines loneliness as “a negative feeling that arises when our social needs are unmet by the quantity and quality of our current social relationships”.

Who gets lonely? 

Loneliness is more common that you might think, says psychologist Cohen — and it can affect anyone. Just a simple search of the internet will show just how much discussion there is about social isolation even within often-busy modern lifestyles.

Changed life circumstances, such as a relationship break-up, the death of a loved one or moving countries, plus physical or mental health issues, can increase risk and likelihood of loneliness, says Cohen.

Elderly people, people living with disability and people from different cultural and language backgrounds can often experience social isolation. Sometimes this can be a result of their living situations, a lack of close family ties or a loss of connection with their culture of origin, says the Black Dog Institute. 

The institute adds social isolation can occur when people do not have access to transport or opportunities to engage with others and participate in their local community.

Facts and figures behind loneliness

Loneliness affects around one in four Australians, according to the preliminary findings of The Australian Loneliness Report, released in November by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne Institute of Technology. 500 adults participated in the 30-minute survey over a six-month period.

The survey found:

  • More than a quarter of respondents (27.6 per cent) say they feel lonely at least three days a week.
  • Almost a quarter (24.5 per cent) of people said they were unable to find companionship when they wanted it.
  • Over half of the population (almost 55 per cent) feel they lack companionship at least sometimes.

Can being lonely affect our health?

The Australian Loneliness Report is Australia’s first research project on the impact of loneliness on mental and physical health. 

It found loneliness increased the chances of a person becoming depressed by 15.2 per cent and increased anxiety about social interactions by 13.1 per cent. In turn, depression and anxiety increase the likelihood of a person being lonely by 10 per cent.

“Loneliness can have a variety of negative effects on both our physical and mental health including cardiovascular disease, suppression of our immune system, reduced brain function, depression and stress,” Cohen says. 

The report found Australians aged over 65 were the group least likely to experience loneliness. This group also reports better physical and mental health and lower levels of social interaction anxiety.

“When we begin to feel lonely, we experience heightened feelings of vulnerability, which can take a toll on both our bodies and our minds.”

THE BLACK DOG INSTITUTE

Helping Australians who feel lonely

These are some of the institutions that have resources available to Australians who are feeling lonely or socially isolated.