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Australians in loneliness epidemic despite nation excelling in employment, social connectedness

Australia facing loneliness epidemic
At-risk: One in four Australians are currently suffering an episode of loneliness despite material wealth.

A CONTRADICTION was exposed in the 2019 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report card released on September 11.

 The report lauded Australia’s achievements in the past two years.

 We had record-level employment rates, 97 per cent civic engagement and 743 million volunteering hours a year.

 Australia was top-three globally in “life satisfaction” and “social connectedness”.

 Then, a contradiction – one in four Australians were “experiencing an episode of loneliness”.

 How could Australians be top-three globally in “social connectedness” yet a quarter of them were currently lonely?

 The St Vincent de Paul Society’s Queensland vice-president Annette Baker said loneliness took many forms.

 Mrs Baker said people who lived far from family, or people who worked away from where they lived were a major group.

 Elderly were also vulnerable to loneliness, she said.

 “(The elderly) become quite vulnerable as they age because their friendship network often is diminishing and it’s been diminishing because they lose their mobility, their ability to be able to go out and socialise with people,” Mrs Baker said.

 “Sometimes they become isolated in their own homes, and then because they don’t have people visiting or they’re not going out on a regular basis, we then have that type of loneliness.”

 She said another form of loneliness was just a “complete sadness”.

 This was where Vinnies often stepped in.

 Mrs Baker said people who visited Vinnies’ support centres or Vinnies workers who went out to make house calls often came across people looking for more than just material support.

 “We do have people who will come in for some support and say I need some food today but, when you start talking to them, you open up the floodgates and you can tell straight away that they are lonely because they tell you like a life story in half an hour flat,” she said.

 “We’re attuned to looking for those sort of things.

 “When we do find somebody who is lonely, we do try to set up things for them or guide them – our aim is to help people take care of their own destiny.”

 Catholic psychologist Nahum Kozak, who works with individuals and couples, said loneliness was a factor for many of his patients.

 “(Loneliness is) all over the place; it’s affecting all ages and it’s quite indiscriminate,” he said.

 Mr Kozak said not having skills to connect with others and, especially in couples, not having the skills to talk through disagreements were contributing factors to loneliness.

 “If it’s hard for whatever reasons for a person to talk with their partner, then they’ll feel lonely and (there will be) separation there,” he said.

 Fortunately, social skills to prevent loneliness could be learned.

 Mr Kozak said if you could manage conflict, be able to stay vulnerable with others and have people you trust, then that’s “the magical answer to loneliness”.

 “We feel loneliness because we are alone with something,” he said.

 The long-term effects of loneliness could be catastrophic.

 Mr Kozak said loneliness was a stressor on the body’s systems physically and mentally.

 He said the worst cases of loneliness, left untreated, caused death.

 This could either be by suicide or by deterioration of health, such as failing cardiac outcomes.

 In couples, he said loneliness was a “huge predictor of extramarital affairs”.

 “I’m glad (loneliness) is getting a really good hearing this year especially,” Mr Kozak said.

 “I think it’s more of a problem for our society and the way we set up in the West.

 “I know Mother Teresa, decades ago, commented the poor in the East are hungry for a piece of bread but the great hunger of the West is loneliness.”

 There was no single cause of loneliness.

 Mr Kozak said a range of factors like societal break-up and the breakdown of traditional institutions contributed to loneliness.

 He said there was a time when people knew their local community and the people they lived around.

 But the increasingly mobile work-force made this difficult.

 “Even if you embed yourself (in your community), the default is now six-foot-high fences between properties,” Mr Kozak said. “That’s not something we individually voted for.”

 Mr Kozak, who used to be parish youth ministry co-ordinator at All Saints’ parish in Albany Creek, said part of what he loved about the work there was building communities.

 He praised the way the parish approached issues like disconnected youth, saying they didn’t bemoan what they wanted – they just went and did it.

 “We are the stewards of what God’s given us in this place,” he said. “We see the need.

 “It is up to us to use what God’s given us to get the outcome we want – there’s a role for the Church absolutely.”

 Another finding of the welfare report was that one million low-income households were experiencing housing stress.

 Mrs Baker said it was a major issue for Queensland.

 People often said they could afford a house if they wanted, but she said that just wasn’t true.

 “Just last week, I had a lady who came in, she’s paying $540 a week (on rent) on a Centrelink benefit.

 “And she said, ‘Annette, I have about $80 to spend per fortnight after I paid the rent’.

 “That’s got to (pay for) electricity, phone bills, medication, buy your food.

 “If you’ve got a car you’ve got to put petrol in it or maybe you don’t leave the house.

 “We see people every day, in our support centres or those we call to visit, are struggling financially.”

 The historically stagnant Newstart Allowance wasn’t helping either, Mrs Baker said.

 Jumping through the hoops of the Newstart system often made people despondent too, which “really affects their mental wellbeing”.

 This led them into further isolation.

 Mrs Baker said kindness was always a great step.

 “It doesn’t matter who you meet as you walk down the street, give them a smile and say hello.

 “You might be the only person that spoke to them today, and I think in our Christian living, that’s what we’re called to do is to be nice to people.

 “Just stretch yourself a little bit and lighten somebody else’s burden for the day.”

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