The most comprehensive loneliness study ever conducted in Australia has been released this week and it found that over a quarter of Australians feel lonely at least three days a week.
The Australian Loneliness Report was conducted by the Australian Psychological Society and surveyed over 1,600 Australian adults.
The report found:
- 50% of the population feels lonely at least one day a week
- 27.6% feels lonely at least three days a week
- 1 in 4 experience high levels of social interaction anxiety
- 55% of Australians feel they lack companionship at least sometimes
The authors of the study point out that feeling lonely is a fundamentally different experience to being alone, as people are able to be surrounded by friends and still experience loneliness. In fact, 25.5% of Australians do not feel that they have a lot in common with the people around them.
Australian Psychological Society president Ros Knight told BuzzFeed News the results of the survey were significant and should be a wake-up call for the medical community.
"Being a practitioner, you know it's there, but I was actually very shocked by the percentage, 25% [of people are lonely at least three days a week] ... that's pretty shocking for a country that prides itself on mateship – to discover that mateship isn't working so well anymore," said Knight.
Dr Michelle Lim, a researcher in loneliness from Swinburne University and one of the report's authors, told BuzzFeed News that this research is long overdue.
"I think we're behind in really understanding the true impact of loneliness in Australia, other countries are way ahead of us," she said.
Lim says that Australia has so far only conducted research that has sampled small populations who would have a high likelihood of reporting loneliness such as people who have called in to mental health helplines. Lim notes that this "quick and dirty" loneliness research that has failed to capture its prevalence across the whole population.
Loneliness can be a chronic condition, leading to poorer mental and physical health, quality of life, and social issues that make the problem difficult to overcome.
Loneliness increases the likelihood of experiencing depression by 15% and the experience of social interaction anxiety by 13%.
It is also contagious; much like other emotional states such as happiness, the likelihood of feeling lonely has been shown to increase when you are surrounded by lonely people.
According to a 2010 empirical review of loneliness studies, loneliness has been shown to increase cardiovascular health risks such as Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Amongst women in the US National Health and Nutrition Survey conducted by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those who experienced chronic, high levels of loneliness over two distinct periods in their life (for example, in childhood and late adolescence), were more likely to have coronary heart disease, even after adjusting for age, race, socioeconomic status, marital status and family cardiovascular risk.
Loneliness may also have impacts on cognitive decline and dementia. One 2007 study found that after looking at IQ levels at age 11 and then again at 79, loneliness is the only social factor that predicts a decrease in cognitive ability.
Knight says that these effects are largely due to the stress that loneliness causes long-term.
"Because if you've got no-one to talk to, debrief how awful life is sometimes, then you start to wear that stress and that costs you in terms of your physical health," she said.
The focus on loneliness as a predictor of negative physical and mental health has become more prominent in public health policy internationally. In January of this year, UK PM Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness following a report that found 14% of the population felt lonely often or all of the time.
Knight says that the effectiveness of having a loneliness minister is so far unclear, but appreciates that the country has "agreed that this needs to be targeted or followed by somebody".
She says Australia's new report gives scope for "ministers for health or mental health to actually think about whether they should incorporate loneliness as a targeted item in Australia".
Labor frontbencher Andrew Giles is concerned Australia is not doing enough to address loneliness and is co-sponsoring a motion with Liberal MP Julian Leeser to develop a loneliness policy.
"We treat issues like smoking and obesity like very serious public health challenges that are responsibilities of government — loneliness should be treated in the same way," Giles told BuzzFeed news.
Giles says Australia shouldn't rely on data from other Western nations to indicate how loneliness develops, and the best ways to address it, and he believes Australia needs to fund high-quality longitudinal studies on the issue.
While he applauds the creation of the loneliness minister portfolio in the UK as a good way to ensure that the problem becomes part of the national dialogue, Giles says that Australia may need more of a cross-government approach.
Knight believes that the government needs to keep funding community-based groups to give people the chance to connect with others as a means of tackling the problem.
"Clearly we connect best with people that have similar interests to ourselves, so things based around the skills that we want to have, or particular hobbies or interests," she said. "Sometimes it's groups that just get together and go on particular outings."
Lim says that there are trends in the loneliness data that need further research, including on the "misconception that loneliness is only about people who are physically isolated".
"We noticed looking at our emerging data that a lot of the people that are reporting loneliness are embedded within society and are well connected," she said.