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From a public health perspective

The Loneliness Pandemic (from a public health perspective)

Spotlighting an increasingly pertinent, yet often neglected public health issue; loneliness.

In this piece, one of our North Island residing neighbours, explores loneliness through the lens of public health, focusing on the imperative influence that social connection has on our health and wellbeing.

In order to create a happy, healthy and harmonious society, we must ultimately strive to nurture meaningful connections, create space for impactful interactions, and remove the shame surrounding loneliness, as, after all, it's something we'll likely all experience in variable forms

Loneliness: A Global Public Health Concern

In our increasingly interconnected world, people are feeling lonelier than ever. This is not only deeply worrying, but a prevalent public health concern, as loneliness has been linked to the increased risk of numerous health conditions, including depression, heart disease and dementia. It is therefore imperative that we address loneliness as a prevalent public health issue which requires prevention, intervention and treatment, and question whether the social structures around us promote social connectivity, or counterproductively hinder it. Before delving into this further, it is first important to define and understand the term loneliness, which is often used interchangeably with social isolation.

Social Isolation vs Loneliness

Although seemingly similar, social isolation and loneliness are two very different things. Social isolation refers to the physical state of being alone, with minimal social contact and interaction, whereas loneliness is more complex, and encompasses the emotions underpinning the nature, consistency and quality of an individual’s social interactions. It is therefore possible to be socially isolated, but not lonely, and lonely, but not socially isolated, as while one person may feel content in a state of solitude, another may feel distressed, and while another may feel enriched when surrounded by people, another may feel lonelier than ever.

The confusion surrounding these definitions has likely contributed to the skewed perception of loneliness within societal and political discourse, which overwhelmingly focuses on loneliness in older age. While this is no doubt a prevalent concern, statistics across the world suggest that younger populations are feeling lonelier than ever. In fact, in Aotearoa, loneliness is reportedly highest among 15–24-year-olds, emphasising the importance of considering the quality of social interactions and not merely the quantity, as while many younger people may appear to be surrounded by social activity, this may be deficient in meaningful and significant connection.

Tackling Loneliness Through Meaningful Connection and Conversation

There are many ways in which we can take loneliness prevention into our own hands, ultimately by boosting the quality of our connections and conversations. This process will look different for everyone. Some may want to explore new connections, while others may consider nurturing the connections they already have, by proactively expressing vulnerability and creating a safe space for impactful discussion. This act of openness could in turn facilitate a positive feedback loop of meaningful conversation, as fostering a safe arena for open discussion will likely encourage and enable those around you to also express their emotions, subsequently nurturing an understanding, empowering and engaging environment. With this said, this is no doubt easier said than done, as emotional transparency and openness is often coupled with a degree of vulnerability and fear.

If you don’t feel able to open up to those around you, or don’t believe that your vulnerability will be positively received, there are people and communities out there to help. This may be in the form of a local book club, gardening group, charity event or running meet, but whatever this looks like for you, it’s important to remember that you are not alone in this. There are people out there just like you who may feel that their social networks are currently failing to provide a safe space for open and honest discussion, and either want to explore the options to improve this, or proactively search for new ones. Loneliness is something that almost everyone will experience at some point within their lifetime, so instead of hiding from it, let’s challenge ourselves. Go reach out to that friend you’ve been meaning to, join that local crochet club, or grab a coffee with a colleague during your lunch break, and let’s all start proactively contributing to a more connected and less lonely society, one meaningful conversation at a time.

For more information, resources and advice regarding loneliness in Aotearoa, please visit the Loneliness NZ website below:

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