By Calla Wahlquist.
Cover Photograph: Chris Hopkins for the Guardian.
Victoria MP says entrenched loneliness is so serious it requires government intervention.
Australia is becoming an increasingly lonely place, so much so that one party is turning it into an election issue.
Social isolation affects one in 10 Australians, while one in six experience periods of emotional loneliness.
It is not a trivial problem. The health impacts of chronic social isolation have the same implications for heart disease and stroke as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, a UK study found.
Loneliness is linked to increased mental health issues, increased risk of chronic health issues such as diabetes, and even early death. Lonely people are more likely to go to the doctor, creating a healthcare burden akin to obesity. As the Australian population gets older, rates of social isolation are expected to increase.
In Victoria, one political party thinks the problem is so severe it requires government intervention. Fiona Patten, the upper house MP who founded the Australian Sex party in 2009 and changed its name to the Reason party in 2017, has proposed that Victoria introduce a minister for loneliness to work across health, infrastructure, justice and communities portfolios, and tackle what experts say is becoming a growing health problem.
The proposal has the support of the Australian Coalition to End Lonelinessbut has yet to be put to either major party.
The United Kingdom introduced a minister for loneliness in January.
Patten says appointing a designated minister would elevate the issue and help reduce stigma, as well as ensuring policymakers remain attuned to the impact of loneliness.
“While I have been in parliament, the notion of social isolation and the issue of social isolation has been raised in a number of areas, whether that was talking about in some cases even as extreme as talking about end of life choices through to looking at retirement housing, through to looking at even juvenile justice, where people have no community connection and this leads to negative outcomes,” she says.
A key part of the role, Patten says, would be utilising a growing body of research into the causes of entrenched loneliness.
Scarce public transport options, a lack of support for people with disabilities to engage in community events and satellite suburbs that force long commutes and leave little time for socialisation have all been identified as possible structural triggers.
“We know that everyone is at risk of loneliness in periods of life transition,” says Tegan Cruwys, a psychological research fellow at Australian National University.
“Whether that’s moving to university, becoming a mum, retiring from the workforce, changing jobs, moving cities. If you were someone who experienced loneliness during life transitions, that has less to do with you and much more to do with the world in which you are living.”
According to a report by Relationships Australia which analysed data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (Hilda) survey, a longitudinal study of more than 17,000 people that has been running since 2001, the group with the highest rates of emotional loneliness are widowed, divorced or separated men aged between 45 and 64.
“Many men have their social connections through women, through their intimate partner’s networks,” says Relationships Australia national executive officer Alison Brook. “So when you suddenly lose a spouse, you lose the rest of that social contact.”