Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (15:33): I rise to move my motion 654:
That this house notes that:
(1) loneliness has emerged as one of the most serious public health challenges being faced around the world;
(2) loneliness is a better predictor of premature death than physical inactivity, obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day;
(3) lonely Australians have significantly worse health status than Australians who do not experience loneliness;
(4) according to the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report, amongst Australian adults, one in four are lonely, nearly 30 per cent rarely or never feel part of a group of friends and 22 per cent rarely or never feel like they have someone to talk to;
(5) the 2019 Young Australians Loneliness Survey found that more than half of young Australians felt lonely sometimes or always;
(6) loneliness was a growing health challenge before COVID-19, but has been exacerbated by it;
(7) one in two Australian residents reported feeling lonelier since 2019, with those who reported feeling more lonely also reporting more depression and higher social anxiety;
(8) addressing loneliness is integral to Victoria’s COVID-19 recovery;
(9) in 2018 the United Kingdom government appointed a dedicated Minister for Loneliness and published the world’s first loneliness strategy;
(10) in January 2020, the first loneliness annual report outlined progress in the United Kingdom as a result of 60 commitments made in 2018 in establishing that ministry;
and calls on the Victorian government to create a dedicated ministerial portfolio for loneliness.
This is a motion around loneliness. It is a motion about an issue that quite often we know, we sometimes feel, but we do not understand. We are only just starting to understand the true impact of loneliness on our society. It has been called an epidemic in other areas, and it is why I am calling today for the Victorian government to take on this issue and to take it on at the level it needs to be taken on at—and that is as a portfolio in this government.
It is a killer. It is a killer, and its costs us millions and millions of dollars. We know the evidence; we know the evidence that it kills people and that it costs us millions and millions of dollars, particularly in our health system but also in our justice system. By addressing it—this carries on from some of the conversations we were having in Ms Maxwell’s motion—if we can look at early intervention, if we can look at prevention, if we can look at treating this, this will relieve the burden on our health system, a health system that is heavily weighed down at the moment.
So this motion, while relatively simple in its ask, actually could be profound. It is something that has already happened in the UK and in Japan, and it is something now that the World Health Organization will be recommending to all governments across the world. They have come out with this now, and they will be developing more information about this. So I think now is the right time for Victoria to do this.
Loneliness is killing us. Lonely Australians have a significantly worse health status than Australians who do not experience loneliness. According to the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report one in four Australians is lonely. This is not social isolation. Loneliness can affect people who are married. They can be surrounded by people, but that sense of loneliness is profound, it is stigmatising and it is something that people cannot talk about. I think particularly for young people, when they are looking at the curated best lives of their friends and people in their age group on their social media channels, they are seeing these wonderful, beautiful lives, and that is not their life. Their desire for social interaction is just not being met, and that creates a vicious circle, because they are anxious about seeking that social interaction. Then when they are socially interacting, they become anxious, and then that makes it worse.
We know that loneliness is a significant precursor to a lot of mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression. In 2019 the Young Australian Loneliness Survey found that more than half of young Australians felt lonely sometimes or always. I think this is really important because when I first started looking at loneliness, probably in 2016, as an issue, I was seeing this emerge in the UK, I was seeing the talk happening over there, and I imagined it was someone like my dad. When my mum died he had no tour director for his life and he did not quite know how to get out there and make a life. But it is not just that older person whose significant other has left them or passed away. It is not just that person. It can be a person who is married. It can be a person surrounded by people, as I mentioned.
Loneliness has emerged as one of the most serious health challenges being faced around the world. Research finds that loneliness is a better predictor of premature death than physical inactivity, obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is a better predictor of premature death. I find that smoking statistic incredibly significant and incredibly important, because you think about what we do to stop people smoking—the work, the public awareness campaigns, the packaging, the funds invested in Quit campaigns. Yet in contrast here we have a health problem of similar gravity that has just slid under the radar until now.
This motion comes, as I mentioned, as other developed nations around the world legislate dedicated resources to address the rates of loneliness. As I mentioned, in 2018 Britain announced the world’s first Minister for Loneliness through the appointment of Tracey Crouch. More recently, in 2020, Japan appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto into the same role. Japan did this because they could see the mental health impact of loneliness. They could see what it was doing. They actually linked their increase in suicide rates to loneliness, and that was what the research told them.
I think in Victoria if we had a portfolio such as this it would work to ensure that adequate resources and funding effectively addressed loneliness here. I think this is particularly relevant right now, where we are in the pandemic.
If we look at the UK, where the most work has been done in this area, they estimated that the total cost of loneliness to their health and justice systems was £32 billion a year—£32 billion. So imagine, just putting in some resources, the payback that you can get there. And that is what predicated the United Kingdom’s government—and I note at that time it was a conservative government—appointment of a dedicated minister for loneliness. In fact they published the world’s first loneliness strategy. By 2020 their first loneliness annual report outlined significant progress as a result of the over 60 commitments they made to establishing a ministry. We can and we should do the same here.
I want to acknowledge Dr Michelle Lim and congratulate her on the extraordinary work she has been doing on the Ending Loneliness Together campaign. This is coming out of Monash University. She is a world leader in this area. When you are looking at different research documents you see her name in most of them. The Ending Loneliness Together in Australia white paper is compelling reading. It is factual and it covers everything. It traverses the stigma of loneliness in its various contexts. I would really implore anyone listening today to look up the ending loneliness white paper.
Globally, the World Health Organization has already published relatively extensively on this issue, particularly in respect to social isolation and loneliness in older people. But they are currently broadening that work and they are looking at the wider population.
We know—and the evidence that has come out of the UK is—that lonely people attend doctors more regularly. They do not go there for health; they go there because they are experiencing loneliness. I know it is not right to bring the personal in, but I will because I think of my father, and his diary was filled with doctors appointments and health appointments. He went to the dietitian I do not know how many times. I mean, he never lost a pound out of it; he never followed any of the instructions he was given by that dietitian or the podiatrist or whoever he went to. But he had a diary full of health appointments, and I am not sure that he needed them, but he needed that context.
This is why it costs us so much. We were hearing from a group called the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability, which represents people with an intellectual disability, and they were telling us that some of their members would feel this sense of loneliness to such an extent that they would call an ambulance in the middle of the night, because that was all they could do. It was the only way they could think of fixing this, of saving their own lives.
WHO have confirmed that social isolation and loneliness impose a heavy financial burden on society, and they have declared 2021–30 that policy window to address this issue, identifying increasing the political priority of the issue as the first of its three-point strategies. Dr Etienne Krug, the director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Social Determinants of Health, said:
Social isolation and loneliness have recently moved up the public policy and public health agenda in several countries … WHO calls on all governments to give social isolation and loneliness the political priority and resources that they deserve, to ensure that all people benefit from a shared spirit of friendship and solidarity.
And I would have to say that if there was ever a day to be talking about this, if there was ever a time to be talking about social cohesion and bringing our community back and extending friendship and solidarity, well, it is right now.
I would just like to quickly, in finishing, also recognise Benjamin McDonald, who was an intern in my office who prepared a really compelling intern report on this issue.
He made some recommendations in that from the work that he had done, and that includes social prescribing. So this is about looking at when people attend to see their health practitioners, that they can prescribe social activities, that they can prescribe something other than medicine. And we know that we are seeing so many people experiencing loneliness being given Valium because of their perceived anxiety, when in actual fact that is not what they need. What they need is connection. What they need is assistance to connect. What they need is a stigma-free way to do that.
And there are already organisations in our community. We know them—neighbourhood houses, the men’s sheds, and I think one of my favourites is a group called the Kindred Clubhouse, which is for people with mental health issues. They have this sort of clubhouse, a drop-in style of approach, and it is beautiful, and it is run by its members. I know that in fact they have been funded federally and by the state here in Victoria, and it is something that came out of New York decades ago. In Poland they are setting up little chairs where people can sit, saying ‘Happy to have a chat’, ‘Would love to have a chat’. These are small things that we can do, but I think these are really important things that we need to do to improve the social cohesion of our community. And I think this is just such a significant issue, and it has been made more urgent around the world by COVID—around the world. This is not just something that is happening in Victoria. This is happening around the world, and that is why I think we should address it now.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Motion moved 17/11/21