The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

Loneliness, a scourge we need to open our eyes to

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 31 October 2018, 08:39 Last update: about 4 years ago

Please keep in mind that 'as we speak' many people are struggling with the brunt of loneliness, possibly a scourge of this era, the epoch that should have been more about networking, communication, access to each other than to struggle with a phenomenon that has hit us like a cyclone.

You all know stories like the persons I met for real:

  • A middle-aged woman who has a professional career to be proud of, excellent University qualifications, loads of work experience and who through no fault of her own tried to stand up to her rights at her place of work. That is when all hell broke loose. This person, for a number of years nursed a depression arriving at the point of losing everything, her family, her friends and her sanity. The end result of all that she went through was 'loneliness' that descended on her like a thick dark veil.
  • A man of pensionable age who got caught into this feeling of solitude and a profound sense of isolation. This man who should have been more focused on seeing through his career aspirations ended up on the verge of letting go of everything, even his own life, because 'solitude' caught up with him. This man, after the passing away of his wife, was left with nothing to go on. He felt deflated, unhappy and abandoned.
  • A young man, who after experiencing for all of his young life the constant quarrelling of his parents and the vice they got themselves into, collapsed like a house of cards in his teens. He and his siblings had to find a way around this unpleasantness that developed and this sadness he couldn't get away from. He ended up feeling terribly alone and cut off and the 'text book' drug addiction got hold of him.
  • A young woman who lost one of her parents when still at a very young age. Not knowing how to grief she was left with nothing to do but stay at home for two whole years trying to figure out how her life will pan out now that her mum was gone. This left her bruised and damaged. She was trapped in this bubble of aloneness she didn't seem to be able to get away from. She is still struggling with these issues.

This week the media reported that during question time in Parliament , Hon. Ivan Bartolo MP asked Hon. Dr Michael Falzon MP, Minister for the Family, Children's Rights and Social Solidarity on Support Line 179.  The Minister tabled some very disturbing statistics.  He informed the House that from an estimated 9,000 callers, that came in touch with Support Line 179, ably managed by Agenzija APPOGG, a staggering 3,000 callers wanted someone to 'listen' to them.  These are statistics for this year only.  In not so many words there were an estimated 8 calls a day made on average of people who felt lonely to a point that they needed external help.  This statistic should make our hair stand on end. 

Warning signs on how this situation has been precipitating have been there for all to see. These are some news headlines that should have put the country to a grinding halt.

'Zabbar macabre discovery: hungry dog eats owner's dead body' - (The Malta Independent; 1/3/2016).

'Hello, cempilt ghax m'ghandi lil hadd ma' min nghid kelma' (Illum; 6/7/2016)

'Loneliness in Dingli: Caritas study warns of village's solitude problem - Caritas research indicates that loneliness is the main social problem facing Dingli' - (Malta Today; 19/12/2016)

 'Caritas organises Christmas Day lunch for persons spending the holiday alone' - (Malta Independent; 23/12/2017)

'A third of support line callers just wanted 'someone to listen'' - (Times of Malta; 26/10/2018)

If we had to add the number of people who are falling into depression (as estimated 25% of the population) and the increase in the number of suicides, (standing at more than 2 'successful' attempts per month - timesofmalta.com; 8/10/2018) are mostly the result of a sense of isolation and loneliness.  This is a ghoulish situation. 

These are all pointers that things are not right and need to be put right. 

At this point this is no longer a problem but is swirling to a level of a crisis.

It isn't easy to piece together what is happening considering that we are investing so much money in our social policy, our economy is thriving and our communication systems are improving.  Yet, here we are speaking about this sense of isolation that affects so many people. 

In the UK, the issue of 'loneliness' has taken such a negative turn that a Minister for 'Loneliness' was appointed in the Theresa May Cabinet.  The New Yorker is quoted as saying;

...loneliness is a real and diagnosable scourge. At the end of last year, a government commission issued the findings of a twelve-month investigation into the prevalence of loneliness in the U.K., conducted with the help of more than a dozen non-profit organizations. According to the report, nine million Britons suffer from loneliness: fourteen per cent of the population. Among vulnerable cohorts, the rates are much higher....The chief officer of Age UK, Mark Robinson, warned that social isolation could be worse for a person's health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Still, such isolation could be relieved, the report suggested, by practices and programs that cultivated conversation, friendship, and empathy: the founding of community allotments where solitary folk might gather; or knock-on-door initiatives, with volunteers targeting lonely souls. (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/britain-minister-of-loneliness-brexit-jo-cox - Accessed on 28/10/2018).

Subsequently, I would like to recommend the following:

1.            We need to get all stakeholders around the table; academia, NGOs, Government Agencies and relevant Ministries.

2.            We need to start a longitudinal study to keep in check the way 'loneliness' is being 'experienced'.  This phenomenon might have one name but a varying set of reasons why it comes about. We need a strategy that emanates from this.

3.            We need a lead Ministry that should be appointed to take on this issue with vigour and drive.

4.            We need to strengthen and support initiatives that are being taken by NGOs like Caritas;

5.            We need Parish Priests, Police Officers, Mayors and other community leaders to be given basic 'first aid training' in dealing with loneliness.

6.            We need to have Local Councils that provide for free Wi-Fi in public spaces and also create other safe spaces so that people can come together.

7.            We need to strengthen the informal networks in our neighbourhoods, communities and alleys.

The Faculty for Social Wellbeing is embarking on a number of initiatives in this regard.  Firstly, it will be organising a Conference on the 23/11/2018, 'Loneliness; Belonging and Community'.  Secondly, the Faculty in collaboration with Caritas Malta will also be launching a Video Documentary in December called Konnekt that will be dealing with this complex issue on a number of levels.  Finally, the Faculty is planning a national wide research on this matter to identify social policy gaps and areas that need to be addressed.

This issue needs to become everyone's responsibility.


 

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