Should we minister to the lonely?
Loneliness is such a serious social, mental and physical health problem that the UK Conservative Government appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
Tracey Crouch was anointed as the first ever Minister for Loneliness following a report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The Commission found that more than nine million people in Britain (about 14 per cent of the population) often or always feel lonely.
Jo Cox is tragically remembered as the MP who was assassinated in June 2016 by a far-right extremist. As an MP, she raised the issue of loneliness, and in her honour a cross-party commission was established.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness called for the Government to initiate wide ranging reforms, including:
- National leadership
- A UK wide Strategy for Loneliness across all ages
- A nominated lead Minister
- A Family and Relationships Test for new policy
- A national indicator on loneliness across all ages
- Measures of loneliness included in major national studies
- Annual reporting on loneliness
- A program to develop the evidence around ‘what works’ in
- Easy-to-understand messages to help individuals connect with
others and avoid loneliness.
The findings of the Jo Cox Commission were echoed in the United States, where Vivek Murthy, the former United States Surgeon General, called loneliness a “health epidemic.”
Here in Australia, a Lifeline survey in 2016 found that more than 80 per cent of Australians believe society is becoming a lonelier place. Swinburne University research showed that loneliness is a risk factor for all causes of early death and that feelings of loneliness can increases the likelihood of earlier death by 26 per cent – which they say is greater than the risk for obesity.
Loneliness is experienced across all age groups, but more often it is older people, those who have lost or are separated from their partner or relative, people with a disability and their carers, those who are new to a local area, including migrants and refugees, and people who struggle to make social connections. A report by the Commissioner for Senior Victorians found that 185,000 older people in Victoria will experience loneliness by 2031.
The AMA’s Public Health secretariat recently met with Friends for Good, an organisation raining awareness of loneliness as a significant issue and trying to fill gaps in services to foster a greater sense of connection and wellbeing for individuals and communities. They describe loneliness as having nobody to talk to or share experiences with, not having someone to confide in and not finding a connection with people, places or things. Loneliness is experienced on-line as well, with people reporting feeling lonely on social media.
The impact of loneliness on health and wellbeing is serious.
A 2015 research report from Brigham Young University found: “actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.” The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry reported a study showing older people who report feelings of loneliness and social isolation are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and is also associated with depression, increased blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels.
A significant problem in addressing loneliness is that often the people we try to reach are isolated in every respect. They may live alone, without internet or mobile phone services, and they may rarely be seen or connect with others. Surveys and data collection may not capture the most isolated members of society.
It is the GP or health worker who is most likely to come into contact with lonely and socially isolated people. In the UK, three out of four GPs report that they see between one and five people a day who have come in because they experience loneliness. We do not know what the data is here in Australia. But we should know. This is an issue that warrants further investigation.
Federally, leadership in addressing loneliness and socially isolation is needed. The current Government has instigated initiatives in the aged care sector, however a much more comprehensive community focus is needed.
While some may scoff at the idea of a Minister for Loneliness or a Minister for Social Inclusion, it certainly has merit.
AMA DIRECTOR, PUBLIC HEALTH
Published: 01 Feb 2019