The Malta Independent 23 September 2019, Monday

Loneliness: an epidemic in the making?

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 9 January 2019, 07:57 Last update: about 10 months ago

‘From when I was young always, I mean at school and in kindergarten, primary and so on, I always felt lonely. My frame was quite big and I was bullied a lot, so bullying I think is one of the things that makes you feel lonely in the world, at least that is my experience.’  (Diandra from Il-Ġerħa tas-Solitudni - il-Mixja lejn Soluzzjoni - Documentary)

These last few months, a team from the Faculty for Social Wellbeing in collaboration with Caritas Malta have taken it on themselves to place on the social agenda an issue that has long been coming but equally overlooked.  Loneliness, and not of the type that you go for a walk alone, or enjoy a sunset with a glass of wine (without having anyone around) or listening to some music by yourself after a hard day’s work, is becoming very much a serious issue.

Loneliness (of the wrong type) and social isolation have been linked to serious consequences namely, psychological problems like alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders and depression, just to name a few.   It is quickly reaching the proportions of obesity and smoking in its impact on the community. 

Katie Hafner from the New York Times (5/2016) is quoted as saying that, ‘Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity.’   This is nothing short of a burning social issue that needs to be addressed on a medical, welfare and public health front. 

Dr Natalie Kenely, Head of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing states in the documentary that; ‘Research that covered more than three million persons has shown that, while we believe that loneliness affects older people mostly, this research has shown that loneliness reaches its peak in adolescence and among young adults, then it decreases, and then it increases again with the very elderly.’ 

A simple search leads us to some important studies that indicate the negative effect of loneliness. Just to name a few:

·                     ‘Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)

·                     The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)

·                     Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke (Valtorta et al, 2016)

·                     Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure (Hawkley et al, 2010)

·                     Lonely individuals are also at higher risk of the onset of disability (Lund et al, 2010)

·                     Loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline (James et al, 2011)

·                     One study concludes lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012)

·                     Lonely individuals are more prone to depression (Cacioppo et al, 2006) (Green et al, 1992)

·                     Loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age (O’Connell et al, 2004)’

(from https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/about-loneliness/):

Now, the worse thing we can do is to try and tackle this issue in isolation.  Let’s start from the very important fact that this is an issue that locally, in terms of data, we haven’t got enough going, or hardly any studies that are dealing with this matter.  This country needs to stick its head out of the ground and start realizing that we can only respond if social policy is equipped with empirical data.  The debate also needs to include the fact that we have turned this country in this ‘us and now’, we have lost the collective moral compass and that economic sanity might be a distraction from the needs that people might face on a day to day basis.  In other words, a good economy, a good standard of living, budget surplus are not automatic entry points that will ensure serenity and social wellbeing.

We cannot speak of loneliness and social isolation as if it is simply a question of visiting someone once a week or dropping by to say hello or to buy them a hobza tal-Malti.  This is way more complex than that.  Quoting Dr Kenely from the previously referred to documentary;  ‘Modern life, unfortunately, is making us more and more solitary because, although on a virtual level the world has shrunk, on a physical level, physical connections, we’re further apart from each other.’

Charmaine, a person who has gone through a long phase of solitude continues to say;

‘It is a phenomenon where, even if for example you are surrounded by people, you are on your own because no one can understand you, no one can enter your mind and understand what you are feeling, because it’s such a strong feeling, and it’s this black thing that is surrounding you but you feel isolated, it is like a personal ghetto away from everyone and no one can reach you.’

So, first and foremost we need to preserve our communities, and I don’t mean only the neighbourhood or the block of flats where I live. Maybe if we haven’t seen someone, we ask about them, where they went, we knock on their door, we go to see if we can be of any help and comfort for them. We must also check on our communities at the workplace.  If a person is giving you a message, 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 respond. It can’t be that we know anyone who is burdened in a situation like this and we let go of them as if nothing happened.

But, we also need to see a social policy that starts addressing this phenomenon beyond the very good initiatives, such as those by Caritas Malta and other NGOs, but also by having a strategy, by understanding where these problems are coming from and trying to look at concrete and tangible solutions because 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 happy in a group, that is the moment when we need to look at our personal and collective conscience.

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