Australia’s epidemic of loneliness is real

Contributed By Jim Hayes

Loneliness as a major issue in Australia doesn’t yet get the attention it deserved. It is real and felt across all age groups. This may always have been around. The difference on the past was that people could fall back on their family and community for a sense of belonging and companionship.

Not so today. Family and community have been largely stripped away. Individuals are cast adrift. This has come about because everything, including the relationships between individuals has become commodified. Just look at the mass of dating and friendship sites on the internat. But it goes much deeper than this.

Everything costs money. Leaving the front door costs. Those with limited means are restricted in their interaction with the outside world.

There used to be a time when real full time work was the norm for adults. Work provided a source of social interaction. Not so anymore. Women who stayed at home had the opportunity to interact with their counterparts in the neighbourhood. Little of this still exists. Neighbourhood relationships have been commodified. We are too frightened to interact. Commodification by an insurance industry based on fear has successfully marketed the idea that we must lock ourselves up and trust no one for our safety.

We shut ourselves away, put ever bigger locks on our doors and windows. We isolate ourselves. Gone are the days when we relied on our neighbours to keep an eye on things. To do this one has to establish relationships and trust. today, we might not even know who our neighbours are.

Then there is the rise of digital communication. It has good uses. The problem is when it becomes an illusion of real life and connection and further isolates the lonely. Talking online is not the same thing as sharing a moment in the flesh.

The rising cost of living is adding a new dimension. We may not be starving. But we do have is a declining ability to participate in a commodified environment. And this is getting worse.

Data released this week from a survey by the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) report, indicates that 42 percent of those aged between 15 and 24 were in loneliness related distress over 2001 and 2022: up by 18 percent from a decade earlier. This was before the days of Covid related isolation.

Numerous studies have detailed the problem of loneliness affecting older retirees and how this has a negative impact on health. They have lost their connections through work and in many cases lack the means to pay for participation in life. Loneliness also infects those in their middle years.

The Australian Psychological Society together with Swinburne University produced the Australian Loneliness Report in 2018. It found that 51 percent of Australians reported that they felt lonely at least one day of each week. This and similar findings in the United Sates and Europe have found a link between loneliness and mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, the development of dementia, premature death, poor health behaviours, smoking, physical inactivity, poor sleep, and biological effects, including high blood pressure and a poorer immune function.

No doubt this is a growing epidemic demanding some answers. but there has been little progress so far. The future looks bleak unless this changes.

it was great to see a group of people in their twenties and thirties in Sydney organise a run for themselves. The run took place last weekend. They call themselves The Croissant Club, and their purpose is to do something affordable together and build friendships as an alternative to loneliness.

This is a fantastic example. Others can learn from it. Breaking out of the commodification of life is possible.

Even so, more than this is needed. Mostly, Australia overcoming the restrictions imposed by the ever rising cost of living. Overcoming this is hard to imagine without their being a far more equitable redistribution of income. Individuals must feel they can afford to make a trip, and not think twice on whether they should spend on a cup of coffee.

Building community is essential. This means people finding ways to engage with each other. It means building spaces where individuals feel welcomed, respected, and valued, where genuine relationships can be built instead of commodified ones. The Croissant Club provides one example. Why not local groups that bring people together for all sorts of forms of mutual benefit? We already have some of this. Why can’t it be extended for those who fond themselves alone?

In the act of engaging, making decisions and acting together, we begin to change society by taking charge and decommodifying it.

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