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Community cure for debilitating pain of loneliness

Opinion

Isolation and loneliness, and their mental and physical health impacts, are on the rise due to the pandemic. But social contact and companionship aren’t far away, explains Kylie Ferguson.

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Emily is a young university student studying health sciences. Outwardly, she is confident and very positive – the kind of young person that you say to yourself “has the world at their feet”. But recently, as Emily was doing her student placement at a local community centre, she told me a different story.

“I am surrounded by people all the time,” Emily said. “At uni, at the shops, on the bus. And yet I feel a deep sense of loneliness.”

“It’s hard to describe the feeling – but it’s more than a feeling – it feels kind of like a deep pain that won’t go away. I sometimes wonder if anyone would actually even notice if I just stopped showing up for my lectures. And if they don’t, what does that say about me? That I’m a no one?”

And then there’s my neighbour Colin, an 80-year-old widower. He was speaking to me across the fence at the back of his house, next to the oval where I often walk my dogs.

“I sit, alone, every day, listening to the radio talkback,” Colin told me. “I like listening to other people, that’s why I like the radio – but I know that they aren’t really talking to me – it’s not like they actually know me or anything. I just don’t feel any motivation for anything these days. It’s just me now. I know my grandchildren would come round if I asked, but I don’t like to tell them how lonely I feel. I don’t want to worry them”.

Feel or sound at all familiar? Chances are, it does. Prior to COVID-19, one in four of us felt lonely and we rarely, or never, had someone to talk to. And now, the evidence is more disturbing; according to the recent Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Household impacts of COVID-19 survey, it’s likely to be closer to one in two of us who are feeling lonely.

We know that loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions globally. Frontline providers of telephone help services, such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue, have reported dramatic increases in calls from people experiencing anxiety and loneliness. It’s measured not just in the hundreds, but in the thousands.

So how bad are the impacts of loneliness really? Isn’t loneliness something that we will just “get over”? Well, it’s up there with cancer, smoking, alcoholism and heart attacks in terms of its health effects. Mother Teresa once said “loneliness is the worst type of poverty”. Emily, the young university student, was right – it is so much more than a feeling. In fact it is another global public health pandemic that can have deep impact on our longevity, physical and mental wellness.

Multiple research findings tell us that loneliness can increase the risk of early mortality by 50% – for all of us.

It is linked to an increased risk of multiple chronic health conditions including heart disease, stroke, lung disease, immune disorders, cognitive decline, paranoia, anxiety and depression.

It increases the length of recovery time from other illness and disease, the risk of relapse, the duration of hospital stays and the risk of readmission. And loneliness isn’t selective in who it affects – although as a teenager or older person, you are more likely to experience it.

Turn on the news, listen to the radio or have a look at the latest change.org funding campaign, and you are likely to see public policy debates and broad scale public movements championing other insidious aspects of poverty – shelter and homelessness, hunger and food sustainability, wellbeing and income, disease and access to health care. And behind the scenes there will be massive data collection engines getting behind research and analysis of causal factors of persistent disadvantage in our communities. As there should be. The more informed we are, the better able we are to target scarce public monies, campaigns and solutions.

But despite 2020 seeing local communities empowered to check in on their neighbours, and support local connectedness activities, how often have you heard about organisations and governments getting behind the gathering, evaluation and monitoring of specific data around loneliness in local communities? How well do we really know who is lonely, and how it is impacting on their mental and physical wellbeing? How deeply do we understand the causes and contributors to loneliness happening around us?

The fact is, despite its impact being so insidious, we simply don’t know enough about loneliness , even though it’s on everyone’s minds in our new COVID-19 world. What we do know, is that whilst there is no simple fix-all antidote, there is great power in meaningful social connection – those that are in person, positive, have meaning to a person and leave that person feeling valued.

And we also know that each local neighbourhood has close by a hub of thriving social connectedness. These hubs might be found in local churches, sporting clubs, cafes and pubs. And they are also found at local Community Centre or Neighbourhood Centres who, for the past 35 years, have cemented themselves deeply in their communities – the very ‘machines’ we need to help reduce social isolation. As not-for-profits, typically these centres are poor in financial wealth, but rich in heart and commitment (each centre likely has at least 30+ volunteers). They do their work through community education and training, social groups, volunteering opportunities, community events and personal support programs.

A massive 35,000 people participate in their activities each week – every visit is an opportunity to connect with another person, to share stories, exchange ideas, and enjoy the power of connecting up with someone else who cares. In SA there are over 110 Centres, and across Australia, there are more than 1000; that’s more than McDonalds! Connection machines indeed!

So, if you are feeling lonely, give your local Community Centre a try. It may just well be that the solution lies in the power of community.

Kylie Ferguson is chief executive officer, Community Centres SA

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