You’ve most likely heard of depression and anxiety. These are psychological conditions that can adversely affect your quality of life and which are classified as mental health disorders or mental illnesses.
However, did you know that loneliness is also increasingly being classified as a condition?
Loneliness is common in our society. A survey from the Australian Red Cross, for example, found that as many as 5.6 million Australians are affected by loneliness.
Men aged 18-34 were “more likely than other demographic groups to feel lonely almost all the time or quite often” and men aged 55+ were most likely to experience loneliness after divorce or separation.
The survey found that women suffered less from loneliness because they were more likely to pro-actively do something about it.
The main causes for loneliness were not surprising: the death of a loved one, moving away from friends or family, isolation due to school or work, and divorce or separation were among the most common reasons.
Almost everyone has felt lonely at some point in their life. That’s why it might feel strange or uncomfortable to refer to as a disease something that you’re familiar with.
So why is loneliness increasingly being treated as a serious condition?
Loneliness versus social isolation
Understanding the serious effect of loneliness begins with understanding the difference between loneliness social isolation. Both terms are closely linked but they mean different things. One refers to a state of mind whereas the other refers to a set of life circumstances.
Social isolation is when you are separated from people. Anyone who has been away for an extended period from friends or family can probably identify with this feeling. There are many things that can cause social isolation (some of which may surprise you) but the more common ones usually include:
- Living alone or away from home due to work or study requirements.
- Lack of contact with close family.
- Lack of transport or mobility due to injury, disability or poor health.
- Lack of contact with friends and family due to retirement or moving address.
- Language barriers.
- Feeling like an ‘outsider’ due to a mental health condition or a lack of social confidence.
- Geographic isolation.
There are many more reasons why someone may feel socially isolated. For example, you may feel unable to head out and ‘be social’ due to the loss of a loved one.
Loneliness is different to social isolation in that it refers to a state of mind. It is a feeling of sadness that results from feeling disconnected from the world around you.
One researcher defined loneliness as “a debilitating psychological condition characterized by a deep sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of control, and personal threat .” People suffering from loneliness may feel like they are experiencing strong feelings of being empty, alone, and unwanted.
It’s important to remember this distinction between loneliness and social isolation. That’s because it’s possible to feel lonely even if you’re surrounded by people, or are ‘connected’ online (perhaps via the internet).
Why are so many people feeling lonely?
Our population is at its most numerous to date, yet we seem to be getting lonelier.
As mentioned, that’s because loneliness isn’t about the quantity of your friends and acquaintances. Instead, it’s about the quality of your relationships.
Social media is a prime example of people seemingly being more ‘connected’ than ever, yet there is growing evidence that it can have a negative effect on our wellbeing and the quality of our relationships and social interaction.
The key to understanding the pervasiveness of loneliness is that it’s not just about social contact — it’s about meaningful contact. It’s possible to feel lonely even though we seem to be interacting with people because there is no sincere connection (such as often occurs online).
What matters most are close, long-lasting, in-depth and personal relationships. They are what makes us happy in the long-term and, ultimately, can make an enormous difference, not only to your mental health and wellbeing, but even your physical health.
One example of where this has been demonstrated is in an extraordinary study that’s been going for an incredible 80 years. Called the Grant and Glueck studies, it saw researchers track the wellbeing and health of a group of men for the duration of their lives. They concluded that it’s the quality of our relationships (even more so than our genes and even our wealth) that affect our happiness and our long-term health.
Change starts now
We’ve all felt lonely at some point in our lives, but historically, the true impact of loneliness on mental health and wellbeing has not been fully understood. Thankfully, that mindset is changing.
For a variety of reasons, loneliness is increasingly being treated as a public health crisis. One of the more serious reasons is that it can affect your mental and physical health. The Grant and Glueck studies mentioned above, for example, concluded that people who aged in an environment of strong social support experienced less mental deterioration.
Numerous studies have shown that loneliness may increase the risk of premature death by as much as 50 percent — and that loneliness now kills more people annually than people than obesity. Unsurprisingly, loneliness is an integral part of many mental, physical and social health problems.
Dealing with loneliness begins with acknowledging how changes in society can bring about new forms of isolation and alienation. For example, loneliness is thought to have increased dramatically among teens and young adults in recent years, a phenomenon that is thought to be closely related to social media.
Even so, loneliness can affect people at all stages and from all walks of life. The ageing population and increased life expectancy means that the issue will only become more urgent as time goes on. For example, the City of Melbourne area has a very high proportion of people aged 75 or over who are living alone, followed closely by the City of Yarra.
Loneliness can also result from language and cultural barriers. More than half of all people in the Brimbank and City of Melbourne area, for example, speak a language other than English at home.
While there is no simple answer to fixing loneliness, the fact that it’s being acknowledged as a social health problem is a vital step in the right direction. What is certain is that the best way to overcome loneliness is to acknowledge and value the things that matter most — the closeness, warmth and quality of our relationships.
Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.
The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.
 VanderWeele, Hawkley, Thisted, & Cacioppo, 2011