Connection, community and care: addressing loneliness could prevent other health issues
Medibank is working on a long-term approach to help address one of Australia’s growing but least understood health concerns – loneliness. Loneliness had been an issue for many Australians for a long time, but the challenges of 2020 highlighted these concerns.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of meaningful social connection, not just any social connection. Loneliness can affect anyone; it doesn’t discriminate on age or social status.
The Consumers Health Forum has today released a new report on loneliness, sponsored by the Medibank Better Health Foundation, calling for a national plan of action to address the often-unrecognised condition.
The report, produced by an expert roundtable led by the Forum, outlines the latest evidence indicating that feeling lonely is also associated with a multitude of poorer health outcomes.
The Roundtable Report proposes four actions as a priority to inform and underpin a nationally coordinated plan for addressing loneliness in Australia:
- A national loneliness index: Create a national index with agreed definitions, indicators and outcome measures for loneliness and social connection.
- Coordination: Governments, community organisations and all those interested in addressing loneliness to work with Ending Loneliness Together as the national coordination body to facilitate partnerships, coordinate research and synergise efforts to address loneliness across all sectors.
- National campaign: Undertake a national campaign to talk about social health, reduce stigma associated with loneliness, enable people to self-identify as lonely and provide practical self-help tools and tips.
- Research: Fund ongoing research and evaluation into loneliness to build the evidence base, demonstrate cost savings and identify what works.
Medibank’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Linda Swan said supporting the Consumers Health Forum’s Roundtable Report is part of Medibank’s commitment to work with Australia’s leading researchers and experts.
“Loneliness had been an issue for many Australians for a long time, but the challenges of 2020 highlighted these concerns. Of all the restrictions placed upon us because of COVID-19, social isolation has been one of the hardest to bear for many Australians,” Dr Swan said.
“We are working with the experts to help us build a 10-year plan to address this major health concern.
“Throughout the last 12 months, Medibank has been working to adapt and expand our mental health support services to be there for those Australians who have found it more difficult to cope with the impacts of COVID-19, including through our work with the Medibank Better Health Foundation.
“This report by the Consumers Health Forum builds on the existing body of evidence in Australia on loneliness and prompts important discussions on how we can address this together as a nation.”
The CEO of Consumers Health Forum, Leanne Wells, said that the report highlights the urgent need for national attention on the epidemic of loneliness in the community.
“The plan of action proposes urgent and practical steps to focus the desperately needed attention on a condition that causes so many people suffering and avoidable illness," Ms Wells said.
“The solutions to this will come from governments and communities and will work best where the people directly affected have a say."
Clinical Psychologist Dr Michelle Lim has been researching loneliness and it’s impacts on physical and mental health for nearly a decade, but when COVID-19-related social restrictions were introduced across Australia in late March 2020, she was interested in the effects on how people perceive their loneliness.
In 2018 and 2019, prior to the pandemic, Dr Lim’s research showed one in four Australians aged between 12 and 89 years old reported problematic levels of loneliness.
A study led by Swinburne University, along with universities in the USA and UK, aimed to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on relationships, health, and quality of life.
“In the first wave of infections, 1 in 2 Australian residents reported feeling lonelier since COVID-19, and those who reported feeling more lonely since the start of the pandemic also reported more depression,” said Dr Lim from Swinburne University’s Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory, and Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together.
One of the findings was that living with family was the most protective against feelings of loneliness.
“Not surprisingly, Australians living alone identified as the most lonely, but interestingly, people living in a share-house/housemate situation were also just as at risk.
“Loneliness is an indicator of the quality of relationships that you have, and who you live with and whether you get along become particularly important during a social distancing lockdown. If you’re living with your family, you’re more likely to have positive meaningful connections, but relationships are complex so it’s not the only thing.
“Across all three countries surveyed, loneliness was associated with more mental health symptoms, less social contact, and more physical health concerns, so we will be further exploring that and what has a positive impact on how lonely people feel. We are investigating what is best to buffer the impact of the pandemic on loneliness – is it family, physical health, exercise?"
Dr Linda Swan said Medibank recently interviewed leading experts and people experiencing loneliness to better understand the issues.
“We've surveyed more than 2,000 Australians to better understand the impact of chronic loneliness on our mental and physical health – the size and scale of loneliness in Australia and the degrees of severity and types of loneliness that exist,” Dr Swan said.
“The results will help raise awareness of the issue, and identify where we can make the greatest impact. We’ve engaged some of Australia’s leading researchers and experts to help us build a 10-year plan to address this growing health concern.”