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Australians tell leading loneliness organisation what’s causing their loneliness

Be Someone For Someone have conducted a national research into the causes and effects of loneliness in Australia, creating a new Loneliness Framework. 

Loneliness is only now becoming an area of public health and social research in Australia, although internationally, considerable research and focus already exists. The United Kingdom for example has appointed a Minister for Loneliness, such is the understood impact of loneliness on public health, the health economy and community resilience and a major campaign supports thousands of community groups tackling loneliness in various forms.

Loneliness cannot be addressed with a one-size-fits-all approach – for our programs to be successful, they need to be targeted and tailored to groups of people with shared experience.

Despite the enormous amount of research available, as practitioners, Be Someone For Someone still needed to find answers to some of the big questions about the loneliness landscape. Questions such as what are the key risk factors for loneliness, what groups of people are most lonely, how do we find them, what interventions would work for each and where can we have the biggest impact.

In 2020, the Be Someone For Someone Research Advisory Committee conducted and reviewed over 200 meta analyses or individual academic research reports, individual papers, government and other publications to try to provide a “state of play at present” to help us and others create practical solutions to the issue.

The result was a unique Be Someone For Someone framework for loneliness that identified four main risk factors for loneliness, each requiring its own style of intervention. These are:

  1. Mental or neurological disability – Resulting from certain illnesses, biological complications, mental health, and physical or psychological disability.
  2. That's life – Caused by ongoing circumstances. Generally common to groups in the same situation, e.g. unsociable employment, cultural dislocation, or single parenthood.
  3. Life's transitions – Caused by a change in circumstances, such as a specific event or change in life, e.g. divorce, bereavement, becoming a single parent, or recent unemployment. 
  4. Structural loneliness – Caused by infrastructure and environment influencing the way we connect and engage, e.g. COVID-19 and social isolation, town planning, or social media. 

This framework helps us consider specific groups of people who were at risk of loneliness in each segment so that we can address their needs specifically, either ourselves, or with others working with these groups.

Research findings

In August 2020, Instinct and Reason (one of Australia’s leading research organisations) conducted some market research on behalf of Be Someone For Someone, which among other things assessed the following:

  • The number of people in Australia experiencing loneliness based on a standard loneliness evaluation tool commonly used;
  • The demographics of those people in age and location;
  • The causes of loneliness based on the Be Someone For Someone loneliness framework.

Highlights

  • 39% (almost 2 in 5) Australians adults are lonely – that’s around 7 million;
  • Almost half of those feeling lonely are under the age of 34;
  • 18-34 year olds tell us that lack of social skills and poor emotional health are the main causes of loneliness;
  • Whilst a smaller number, those over 55 who are lonely are feeling it more deeply than younger people. They have heightened negative emotional experiences when faced with situations and circumstances that bring about loneliness;
  • Over 55s tell us the top 2 reasons for loneliness are unemployment and lack of mobility;
  • We’d like better social connections - our research tells us that only when it comes to social connections, Australians recognise that our social connections aren’t where they need to be;
    • 69% say they often feel rejected;
    • 58% feel a general sense of emptiness;
    • 55% find their circle of friends too limited.

This is very important as there is a well-understood and researched connection between loneliness and depression – the biggest disability in the world and a key focus for Australian mental health services. Recent research by General Hospital of Massachusetts says that loneliness is the biggest cause of depression whilst social connections are the biggest protector against depression, regardless of depression’s cause. In short, if we work on our social connections, we can reduce depression in a major way.

  • The biggest causes of loneliness are things that we consider to be situational, i.e. part of our everyday life’s ongoing circumstances. These were topped for young people by poor emotional health and lack of social skills and for the over 55s by unemployment and lack of mobility. 

What are the big causes of loneliness?

The August research also asked people experiencing loneliness to answer which of these four risk factors were contributing to their loneliness and within them, specific causes.

The responses showed

The cause of loneliness for most is not a neurological issue

Only a small percentage (13%) of people identified that their loneliness was caused by neurological or mental disability that prevented them from having the social connections they need.

Loneliness - That’s life?

By far the largest group (45%) felt their loneliness was caused by a situation in their life that was here to stay, circumstances that make loneliness inevitable.

Young people – a long lonely life

Social skills and improved emotional health for young people is crucial in ending loneliness and preventing long term ill health.

Worryingly, the major factors cited by young people as causing their loneliness, as a fact of life, were lack of social skills and poor emotional health. It is shocking enough to think that young adults are lonely, but in the absence of critical social skills and emotional perspective before the age of 35, the prognosis could be a descent into years of chronic loneliness and associated poor health, even early death.

Life’s transitions

The research review showed that changes in life can trigger loneliness – bereavement, new parenthood, and relocation are some of the examples. A quarter responding to the August survey put their loneliness down to this. 

With 25% saying being unable to access social activities is the cause, 22% blame having to change their social circle or redundancy. This is no surprise given the time at which the survey was conducted. Other key factors included separation, divorce and relocation.

Social infrastructure

One of the risk factors to loneliness are the broader structural issues that surround our lives – issues that affect groups of us but are societal rather than things we have individual influence over. These include the structures of our neighbourhood, public safety, discrimination, cultural influence, and so on. The most dominant cause of loneliness for people who attributed loneliness to this risk factor was working from home and lack of face-to-face connections.

We hope you found this article insightful and thought-provoking. If you’d like to find out more about what we’re doing to combat loneliness and how you can get involved, see our programs