The latest State of the Nation Report, Social Connection in Australia 2023, has revealed that more Australians than ever are being impacted by social isolation and loneliness.
Concerningly, the national survey also found that despite nearly one in three Australians feeling lonely, community misconceptions and stigma are preventing people from talking about it – and in turn seeking the connections and support they need.
Dr Michelle Lim, the Chair and Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together (the national body tasked with addressing this issue), pointed out that while the detrimental health, economic and social impacts of loneliness are well established, community awareness and action remain low.
“Overall, loneliness was significantly associated with community stigma, shame, and concealment,” Dr Lim said.
“Loneliness is highly stigmatised: one in four people think that people who are lonely are less worthy and only two in five people think that their community respects people who feel lonely.
“When people feel lonely, almost one in three people are ashamed, half are embarrassed to admit this to others and would conceal their loneliness, and nearly three in five do not talk to others about feeling lonely.”
The longitudinal study, launched 26 June 2023, comprised a nationally representative sample of 4,026 Australians aged 18 to 92 years to produce a weighted prevalence of loneliness by demographic factors and all other variables of interest.
The team found that people who were moderately lonely were 5.2 times more likely to have poorer wellbeing than people who were not, while those who were severely lonely were nearly six times more likely to have poorer wellbeing than people who were not severely lonely.
People who are moderately lonely were two times more likely to have chronic disease than people who were not lonely
People who are moderately lonely were more than four times more likely to have depression than people who were not lonely
People who are moderately lonely were more than four times more likely to have social anxiety than people who were not lonely.
For those with severe loneliness, the rates of comorbidity with a mental health condition increased even more.
“Loneliness was significantly associated with lower quality of life across a range of quality-of-life domains and is more related to psychosocial quality of life and less related to physical quality of life,” Dr Lim explained.
“An important distinction to make in this report is the difference between social isolation and loneliness, while many Australians believe they are one and the same, there is a significant difference.
“Loneliness is a distressing feeling we get when we feel disconnected from other people, and desire more (or more satisfying) social relationships, [whereas] social isolation (or being alone) is a physical state where you have fewer interactions with others.”
For example, those living in most disadvantaged neighbourhoods (54%) were more likely to be socially isolated compared to those living in less disadvantaged neighbourhoods (41%), but only 39% of people living in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods were lonely compared with 28% of people living in the least disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
The impact of limited finances on the ability to get out and see others was also reflected in the finding that more than half (51%) of people who reported poorly met financial needs also reported feeling lonely, compared to just 27% of people who reported that their financial needs were well met.
“Loneliness should not be seen as a sign of weakness or fault. Feeling lonely is an innate signal for us to acknowledge and address our basic human need for connection, and understanding this is the first step to creating a more connected Australia,” Dr Lim said.
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