The Malta Independent 25 May 2019, Saturday

Over 186,000 currently facing loneliness – Faculty for Social Wellbeing study

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 8 May 2019, 08:25 Last update: about 17 days ago

Less than a year ago the Faculty for Social wellbeing in collaboration with Caritas Malta produced a 26-minute documentary anchored by the popular journalist Keith Demicoli, The scourge of solitude: the walk towards a solution. 

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Let’s lay the cards on the table.  Our need to be connected with each other is an intrinsic part of our nature. To be part of a group is a natural prerequisite. Loneliness, not out of choice, is something that shows us that there is something that isn’t functioning well in our lives.  The phenomenon of loneliness is the social wound of our times - which is such an idiosyncrasy considering we invest so much in communication and networking of all sorts.

Dr Natalie Kenely, Head of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work is quoted as saying, “Unfortunately, in Maltese we only have one word ‘solitudni’ for what in English is described using two words, which are ‘loneliness’ and ‘solitude’. In reality, when we speak about ‘solitude’, there are those who explain that it is something positive. It is ‘loneliness’ that is negative, because we are talking about people who feel alone.”

This documentary I referred to earlier on, through the interviews with people who have gone through this experience, practitioners and academic experts in the field, detailed this issue by drawing primarily from international sources and some existing sporadic information locally.  The aftermath of this documentary was that it was felt that we need to conduct a national survey.

As a Faculty we felt that it is time to have data that would give us a better understanding of what the current situation is, using a universal tool that will help us compare the data even with other countries and this would eventually lead to proposing social policy measures.  It is also encouraging that as soon as I flagged the need to speak on this matter with Dr Michael Falzon, the Minister for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity he obliged immediately.  The role of University is to flag the empirical data and social and public policy are there to react accordingly and this will hopefully lead to service provision and training in this field.

Nora Macelli, the Chief Executive of St. Jeanne Antide Foundation is quoted as saying, “Many people tell us that they feel lonely because no one goes to visit them, no one interests themselves in them, no one has any time for them and there are many difficulties in the family, there’s a sense of great shame, and because of that shame – that comes from stigma – they feel isolated and lonely.”

But as they say, numbers speak volumes.  The research process was directed by myself, Prof. Marilyn Clark and supported by Jamie Bonnici, the Faculty Research Support Officer.  The data was gathered by the NSO with a minimal margin of error due to the high sample.  Some of the figures are simply shocking, to say the least.  

This is to mention but a few.

186,470 are currently experiencing loneliness, the equivalent of 44% of the researched population which is essentially those aged 11 till very old age.  51,252 persons claim that their sense of belonging in the community is not strong at all and when asked about their perception on household income, 19.5%, that is equivalent to 83,821 people, consider it low.  

On the other hand the perception on how well one can cope with stressful events indicated that almost 44,660 individuals struggle when faced with life challenges.  This is compounded with the fact that 16,759 persons often feel rejected, 19,555 persons miss having a close friend, 65,290 people experience a general sense of emptiness and 16,759 people often feel rejected

The study also looked at specific populations, notably disabled persons.  16,936 disabled people, practically half of those that were captured in the sample, feel that there is a limitation in access to leisure activities due to disability and 15,957 disabled persons feel that there is a limitation in access to socializing events due to their impairment which does say something about our leisure industry. 

There are also some encouraging statistics namely 382,738 citizens feel positive about their life even though 29,775 persons feel that there isn’t someone they can talk about.  65,290 persons experience a general sense of emptiness and 110,090 persons do not have anyone they can trust.  55,114 persons do not feel that there are people they can lean on when they have problems.  75,010 people do not feel that that they can call on friends whenever they need them.

Roberta Farrugia Debono a Clinical Psychologist says that, “Research shows that, at the end of the day, the sense of how content you feel about your life also depends on how much you can make sense of the people around you who are helping you have a good life. So if you have good relationships, those relationships will improve your quality of life.”

It is incredible how the phenomenon of loneliness is increasing at the same time that we have a society full of technological means with which we can communicate. So I ask, are we living in a more impersonal world? Is it true that we have become more concerned about ourselves and those close to us and much less about others?

Charmaine Attard, who experienced loneliness says; “I used to appreciate a lot people who didn’t give up on me because when you go through something like that, people get tired. So at first everybody comes and the same happens when someone dies.  In the beginning everyone is with you, then suddenly people go back to their lives and God forbid that they don’t. But you appreciate those people who keep sending you that message: Yes, I thought f you today and hope you are better. Even if it is only a simple message.”

Anthony Gatt Director of Caritas Malta says that, “In reality, the biggest responsibility for the solution in these circumstances is what the community can do for persons who are in a situation of loneliness.”

So how do we tackle this phenomenon?

·                     Well getting precise data is the first thing we need to do – and that is why the Faculty for Social Wellbeing embarked on such a project. 

·                     We also need to preserve our communities and I don’t just mean the neighborhood where I live.  Let’s not forget that if we haven’t seen someone, we ask about them, knock on their door and we go to see if we can be of any help and comfort to them. But we must also see our communities at the workplace.  Maybe a person is giving you a message that things are not going well, if their behaviour has changed, if they are showing perhaps even on Facebook or other social media that they feel abandoned, lonely, that they would like to talk.

·                     We need to see a social policy that starts addressing this phenomenon not only the good initiatives such as those by Caritas Malta, the Stare and other NGOs but also by having a strategy, by understanding a bit where these problems are coming from and trying to look at concrete and tangible solutions.

When a person is lonely it is not their problem, it is not a problem that affects them only. It is our problem too, it is a problem because when someone isn’t happy in society, when someone isn’t in a group they should be in, then that is the moment when we need to look at our social conscience.

 

In other words, it all depends on what you and I do and what you and I don’t do.

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