The increasingly socially atomised nature of contemporary life could be killing us. That’s what the experts say. Research across the Western world indicates that millions of us are socially isolated and bereft of meaningful connection, which could be linked to a major public health crisis.
Governments are slowly starting to tackle this societal malaise. In January this year, the UK government appointed minister Tracey Crouch to tackle loneliness. The appointment followed the release of a bipartisan report set up in honour of Jo Cox, the Labour MP gunned down by a Neo-Nazi weeks before the Brexit referendum in 2016. Speaking at the time, British Prime Minister Theresa May called loneliness “a sad reality of modern life”.
Now, in the lead-up to the Victorian election, upper house MP Fiona Patten, who founded the Australian Sex Party, has called for the state to create a similar portfolio.
The loneliness crisis
May’s announcement was met with a mixture of bafflement and ridicule in some quarters. But the data pointed to a very real crisis. According to the UK report, 9 million Britons suffer from loneliness, and the effects are amplified among certain at-risk groups — half of disabled people and a third of the elderly reported feeling “overwhelmed” by loneliness.
This isn’t a solely British problem either. A recent study reported more than a fifth of Australians felt they rarely or never had someone to talk to or turn to for help. Meanwhile, the average number of close friends Australians have has reportedly halved over the last 13 years.
Cathy Mihalopoulos, a health economist based at Deakin University, who is on the scientific advisory committee of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness told Crikey that social isolation isn’t confined to these common at-risk groups either. “Our research shows that loneliness is definitely common in older people, but probably more common in young people,” Mihalopoulos said.
This conclusion is reflected by an American study, which found that millennials were lonelier than older generations.
Mihalopoulos says the causes of the crisis are “multifactorial”, and a paucity of research is inhibiting our ability to get to the root of the problem. Various hypotheses — from an increase in “screen time” and a decline in membership of community organisations like churches and unions, to the effects of neoliberal capitalism — have been offered.
The devastating impacts
“Once you start delving into the research, [you see] the impacts can be devastating,” Mihalopoulos said. In the UK, a study found loneliness had the same impacts on heart disease as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Former US Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy wrote that social isolation is associated with a reduction in lifespan “even greater than that associated with obesity”. Researchers in the Netherlands have also found loneliness increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Mihalopoulos stresses the hidden costs too, citing elderly people forced into residential aged care at an earlier stage, and people taking more frequent trips to the doctor and placing a greater strain on the health system.
Loneliness may also be a national security problem. In an increasingly polarised political landscape, socially isolated, vulnerable people are easily seduced by the pull of radical ideologies, from white supremacy to jihadism. Acquaintances reported Bourke Street attacker Hassan Khalif Shire Ali as increasingly paranoid and estranged from his family. Alek Minassian, who killed 10 people on a Toronto sidewalk with a van in April was described as “a loner with no friends”. Minassian was a self-described “incel” (involuntary celibate) — a member of an online community forged around a hatred of women that frequently draws such socially isolated young men into its web.
Can the state fill the void?
In this context, calls for a “loneliness minister” appear far less absurd. Mihalopoulos believes that, if anything, a ministry could put a spotlight on a chronically overlooked public health issue. “If a minister brings [loneliness] to the forefront, people will start paying attention,” she said.
Still, aside from providing greater visibility, it’s unclear how necessary a separate portfolio is, especially since many of the challenges created by the loneliness crisis already fall under the purview of existing ministries like health and social services. In a New Yorker piece responding to the British proposal, Rebecca Mead notes that May’s announcement was “a clever public-relations move” — Crouch was already the Minister responsible for civil society, and loneliness already effectively fell within her portfolio.
In this context, perhaps the best governments can do is draw greater attention to the scourge of loneliness, and provide support for more programs to help isolated people — Mihalopoulos describes home visits for at-risk individuals as one intervention which has had particularly positive results. It’s easy to scoff at calls for a loneliness ministry, but there’s only so long a crisis can be ignored.
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