Psychologists warn loneliness is a looming health issue

Australia’s forced social isolation has psychological health experts concerned about an increase in loneliness and associated emotional and physical health issues, especially among older Australians.

According to research undertaken by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and Swinburne University, one-in four-Australians experienced loneliness prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new survey released last week by Vox Pop Labs found the number of Australians reporting poor mental health has doubled in the last month and the number of Australians frequently feeling despair has more than tripled.

An earlier survey revealed that loneliness could be increasing nationally, with the majority (57 per cent) of Australians feeling lonely and isolated more often since the outbreak of COVID-19 (Source: MyGov, April 2020).

President of the APS Ms Ros Knight said these results were not surprising given many people were experiencing increased or new feelings of loneliness because of social distancing, quarantine and self-isolation.

“Loneliness is not itself a mental health problem and we are all vulnerable to experiencing some form of loneliness during our lifetime,” Ms Knight said.

“But being lonely increases our chances of poor mental health and having a mental illness increases our chances of experiencing loneliness.

“We know that loneliness lowers the level of psychological health, with sufferers reporting higher levels of depression, anxiety, social difficulties and loss of confidence.

“This is exemplified in the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which found that one in three Australians (35 per cent) felt nervous at least some of the time, compared with 20 per cent during the same reporting period in 2017-18.

“We also know that people with higher loneliness levels report more physical health symptoms, including sleeping difficulties, headaches, stomach complaints, nausea, colds and infections.

“Loneliness is a distressing feeling. It signals our need to reach out to others and prevent us from having to depend solely on our own resources to survive, thrive or flourish. COVID-19 is making loneliness worse by keeping people apart and cutting off these signals.

“Loneliness is usually temporary, although there is uncertainty about how long social distancing rules will be in place,” she added.

Ms Knight said COVID-19 is leaving older Australians particularly vulnerable.

“Older Australians have been strongly encouraged to stay at home at this time and many are having reduced or no contact from family and friends,” Ms Knight said.

“It is important to not make too many assumptions about their feelings and needs. It can be helpful to ask them what they think would be helpful, and if there is anything you can do.

“For example, talk to them about how they are feeling and how they are managing changes to their level of social contact, offer help to set up phone or video chats with family or friends or to write and send letters.

“You can even offer to help them get involved with hobbies and perhaps an online group for a particular hobby. Showing or sending them videos or photographs, letters or drawings is also a great way of staying connected,” she said.

Ms Knight said psychologists and other allied health professionals were seeking to alleviate loneliness by staying in regular contact with their clients and offering tele-health options where appropriate.

Last week more than 3,000 people from across Australia responded to an APS invitation to take part in an online forum to discuss ways to deal with loneliness, isolation and anxiety.

The forum covered a range of important and helpful topics, including:

  • General understanding of what loneliness means
  • Why it’s important to reduce loneliness
  • Tips on managing loneliness
  • What you can do to help yourself – if you are lonely
  • What you can do to help others – if you are NOT lonely
  • And current advice for some different groups within the population, including people who live alone, older people and children.

“Psychology has a lot of advice to offer to Australians in regards to feelings of loneliness.

“While individuals can undertake other strategies such as keeping in touch with family members and other older people in their lives, Governments also needed to be looking at the impacts of loneliness on Australians during COVID-19 and building practical interventions into health policy.

“These could range from teaching Australians – particularly older Australians – how to use social interaction technologies like Zoom, to educating and training people on how to identify and manage feelings of loneliness in different life stages and settings,” Ms Knight said.

“More should be done to understand the impact of loneliness in our community.

“More can be done, like the APS public forum, to help people identify and manage their own feelings of loneliness and how to support others in the time of COVID-19,” Ms Knight said.

To listen to last week’s APS online forum on how to tackle loneliness and social isolation on the APS website.

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