Taking Loneliness Seriously

By Kieran Madden April 22, 2021

We all feel lonely sometimes. Loneliness is no different to hunger or thirst; a signal from our bodies that we need something. Meaningful social connection—especially with people we can be ourselves around, people we can call on in times of need—is a basic human need.

But just like these other needs, if left unmet for long periods of time, there are serious social, emotional, and health consequences. Prolonged loneliness, for example, is associated with an increased risk of depression, addiction, anxiety, heart disease, dementia, sleep disturbances, and even premature death.

We might assume this mostly affects older New Zealanders, but research shows it is our youth that are feeling the most disconnected. They are up to four-and-a-half times more likely to experience prolonged loneliness than older New Zealanders. Sole parents and unemployed people also have relatively higher rates of loneliness.

Loneliness is no different to hunger or thirst; a signal from our bodies that we need something

Job losses, physical distancing, and general emotional uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 have only made things worse. Before the lockdown last year, around 3.5 percent of New Zealanders were feeling lonely—a small but significant minority. During the lockdown this rate rose to around 11 percent, settling to about 9 percent afterwards. Youth rates are higher: around 20 percent felt lonely during lockdown, only dropping to 17 percent afterwards. There has clearly been a post-pandemic relational toll; the new normal is lonelier than before.

Other countries have put loneliness squarely on the policy table. In 2018, the United Kingdom government led the way, recognising this as a policy issue years ago with a Minister of Loneliness working on a “Loneliness Strategy” aimed at increasing data collection, front-line mental health workers, and funding community projects to name a few responses. Earlier this year the Japanese Government appointed a new Minister responsible for alleviating loneliness and social isolation.

Whether we appoint a Minister or not, we must follow suit. We cannot afford to ignore the cost of loneliness and isolation on society. But it’s not easy area to make ground. Years in, the UK Government is only just getting the measures and strategies bedded in.

Governments are great at many things, but relational connection is not one of them. Just because loneliness is of policy interest doesn’t mean Government can alleviate it alone.

We all have a role to play in pursuing a New Zealand where we all belong.

In a recently-released book by the U.S Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on loneliness, his recommendations had surprisingly little to do with policy settings. Simple things like devoting time to spend with loved ones, focusing attention and avoiding multi-tasking when relating, and serving others wherever we can form the foundation of a response.

Policy-wise, keeping the economy afloat with people in jobs and supporting those out of work will make a difference here, but above and beyond this economic response, this is a policy area where the Government is best set to coordinate an overarching strategy and to fund, support and protect community organisations with human faces and open arms for those struggling with loneliness. We all have a role to play in pursuing a New Zealand where we all belong.

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