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Quality, not quantity, of connections the key to combating loneliness, isolation

Archbishop's Conversation asks if loneliness is Australia's next health crisis

PHOTO: Chris Shearer

By Chris Shearer

July 8 2019 

The post-millennium explosion of online communication technology and an increasing focus on mental health issues have done little to curb the rise of loneliness, according to panellists at the most recent Archbishop’s Conversation.

Archbishop Philip Freier was joined on 12 June by Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and co-founder of headspace Patrick McGorry, and the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Head of Aged Care, Helen Page, to discuss the topic “Loneliness: Australia’s next health crisis?”.

The risks were laid out in stark relief in the opening words of moderator John Cleary, with the former ABC broadcaster noting that a British Government report had found “loneliness is far more common and potentially far more dangerous than publicly understood”. According to that report, it affects up to one in three people, can damage the brain and immune system and lead to depression and suicide, and increases one’s risk of prematurely dying as much as smoking does.

How we have reached the point where individuals are better connected than ever but also perhaps at greater risk of loneliness than ever before was a focus of the discussion.

Professor McGorry said he liked to understand the term by breaking it into three parts: intimate loneliness, where one lacks close relationships; relational loneliness, where one doesn’t have a wider circle of support; and collective loneliness, where one feels unconnected from a wider group membership. Overall, he said, loneliness was a “perceived social isolation”, and was subjective to the individual. Generally, he noted, it wasn’t the quantity of relationships that mattered but the quality.

Listen to the most recent Conversations with the Archbishop as a podcast below

Ms Page told the audience that in her experience, the reasons for feeling lonely varied across different sections of the community.

“The Brotherhood works across many parts of our community that are vulnerable and potentially disadvantaged. So that might be culturally diverse people, asylum seekers, unemployed and youth and [people in] aged care and I think within each of those groups of society there’d be different reasons why people would be vulnerable to feeling lonely,” she said.

“I think it’s always been evident in the residential care setting that our clients are potentially lonely and that’s a reflection of the many losses that people have experienced before they find themselves in residential care, so there’s a lot of reasons why they’re already isolated; but I’ve also seen the flipside where clients come into residential care and flourish because they’re not alone at home anymore.”

Dr Freier added that loneliness as a phenomenon seemed increasingly a modern affliction brought about by a lack of a sense of community.

“I think we’re small, we’re finite, we’re mortal, but there is a different sense of what that feels like when you’re in the immensity of nature on your own to when you’re in, say, an immensely busy city or in a subway train in New York or a tube in London or even a crowded tram or train here in Melbourne,” he said.

“You’re in their personal space, but you’re not in their relational space.”

For many people, Dr Freier said, those qualitative relationships are going to come from traditional community connections that have been eroding over the past decades. He pointed to the 500 to 600 parish congregations in Melbourne as an example of those communities which can help relationships to flourish.

“I know for the people who are part of those, these are quite enriching and life-giving parts of their identity and where they work best, they are multi-aged so people are probably experiencing richer interactions than they might just in their own domestic situation where they could be alone or they could just be one generation,” he said.

Ms Page added that there has been a concerted effort in some quarters to recreate these small communities where people can build relationships and have a sense of belonging.

She pointed to the work of the retiree-focused higher education provider the University of the Third Age, micro-community builder Neighbourhood Connections, and the increasingly popular Men’s Sheds.

The panel generally appeared to value these “authentic, intimate connections” over those solutions to loneliness offered by technology.

Both Dr Freier and Professor McGorry viewed social media – perhaps the greatest communication revolution of the early 21st century – with some scepticism in regards to its usefulness in overcoming loneliness, variously describing the connections to be found there as “shallow”, “superficial” and “vacuous”.

Ms Page, though, said the rapid advancements in technology were a “double-edged sword”, especially for older people.

“For some people who are adopters of technology, it’s allowed them to connect with each other and with family and, you know, when you think what’s possible with Skype and many people have family living all over the world, so it allows them to keep connected,” she said.

“But for many older people who haven’t adopted technology, and, perhaps, can’t even use a mobile phone, it can be quite isolating and the way we’ve adopted it throughout our society, we’ve replaced a lot of person-to-person interaction with technological interaction.”