Loneliness. An epidemic. Contagious? A symptom of individualism or our broken social structures.
The case for concern is significant:
- Mental health is 15% of the burden of health care and only 1 in 3 patients is adequately funded.
- Britain has appointed a minister for loneliness.
- Victoria has instigated a Royal Commission; a once in a lifetime opportunity to overhaul a broken, deflated system in which both patients and those providing care suffer.
- Loneliness damages our brain and contributes to other conditions such as heart disease.
- Unlike heart disease and diabetes who tackle prevention, early intervention, primary care and palliative care (albeit with varying degrees of success) mental health services are sporadic, shockingly overloaded, disconnected and lack the consistency of personal connection which is known to make a difference.
The panel I attended this morning consisted of Patrick McGorry, Professor of Youth Mental Health at Melbourne University, co-founder of headspace and former Australian of the Year, and Helen Page, head of Community Aged Care for the Brotherhood of St Laurence, in conversation with Archbishop Philip Freier. The discussion was moderated by former ABC host John Cleary.
I found myself dwelling on how different loneliness can look for different people. Even those who appear to be surrounded by people who care. Many of those in my extended friendship group who are lonely professionally and intellectually. Yet they are ‘too busy’ to make a change. The panel focused on loneliness in both the youth and elderly populations and the challenges here are significant. But what of the mid part of our lives when we are struggling to do some or all of the following; establish financial independence, define our careers, raise our families and understand ourselves beyond the educational institutions which define our early years.
The crux of the conversation revolved around the tension between defining ourselves as an individual, feeling connected to and belonging to a group and contributing to something greater than ourselves.
Intimate loneliness is about the 1-5 relationships which we hold most dear.
In the last 10 years we have seen the rise of individualism. Access to purchasing and lifestyle decisions which promote this. In the corporate setting we are also being increasingly asked to ‘bring our whole selves to work’ to be ‘authentic’. We are not equipping individuals as children and only in isolated efforts as adults to do the internal reflection on who we are and what we care about.
So if you’re left asking where to start, ask yourself. What do you care most about?
Rank all the activities you spend your time on (as time is limited) from those you care most about to those you do not. Actively hold up new opportunities or requests for your time against where you currently spend it. And if you’re not spending it on things you care about. Experiment. Take 10 mins a week and do something you care greatly about. Reflect on how it makes you feel. If it feels good. Do more of it. Focus on how you can increase your contentedness to those special people in your life.
Relational loneliness was reflected in the panel discussing how we have lost the ‘we’ in designing our spaces, time, activities and services.
What groups are you a part of? What interest do you have that could be part of a group? There are infinite opportunities to build, maintain and interact in groups. Have coffee with a neighbour, volunteer once a month, go for a walk with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile, talk to someone on your commute. I regularly have conversations with those I sit next to on the train, with some simple listening skills you’ll be able to determine if they wish to talk to you too, and you might be surprised about who you’ll meet and how readily people will interact.
Collective loneliness is our innate need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.
A clearly articulated and well implemented purpose embeds a sense of contribution beyond an individual or organisation. If all our institutions, organisations authentically embraced this as their strategy the impact on peoples overall wellness would be fundamental. We as individuals would be able to choose to buy, interact and work for those organisations which most complemented our individual goals, desires and values.
The organisations who we spend so much of our lives interacting with as clients, customers or employees have a significant role to play in all three forms of loneliness:
Give us the time we need, both before we need it and when the need is acute to maintain our intimate relationships.
Encourage, enable and promote participating in the value groups beyond our colleagues to combat relational loneliness.
Embed and activate a purpose alongside profit such that the time and money we contribute as customers and employees can be traced to a positive impact far greater than any one individual or organisation can achieve on their own.