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To respond to the shadow pandemic, we need more tools in the toolkit

If all things go according to plan, we’re on the way out of this wave of the health pandemic, and based on the experience last year, the economy will come roaring back.

That’s two out of three problems solved. Immediate health crisis: fixed with a vaccine; economy: fixed with the end of lockdowns and government support.

But we don’t have the structures in place to address and prevent the crippling mental health issues that often begin with loneliness.

To their credit, governments are willing to invest in this space, but we have to do it smarter.

Over the past two years, Australians have gotten pretty good at talking about the “shadow pandemic,” and topics such as loneliness, social isolation and declining mental health which have been exacerbated by lockdowns, but not so good at doing something about it.

Loneliness isn’t a new phenomenon, but it is a growing one, with health consequences much worse than originally understood. Once imagined an experience for the elderly, we now know the burden is being particularly felt by our younger citizens.

Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that one in four Australians over the age of 12 endured problematic loneliness. That is five million Australians at risk of, or already experiencing poor health as a result of their loneliness and isolation.

By July this year the ABS revealed new data which showed that one in three younger Australians (18-34 years) had experienced ‘high or very high levels of psychological distress’ in June 2021.

Additionally, new analysis from The Australian National University (ANU) shows the mental health of Australian children has deteriorated significantly over the last year due to COVID-19.

And the implications are awful. Links between loneliness, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations and suicide are indisputable, and we all also know that loneliness causes cognitive decline and dementia and increase premature death by 26 per cent.

Put another way, it’s as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we need to put in place now the tools to better support the social and psychological lives of Australians.

So, what are they? Well, there are plenty of examples of interventions overseas, one of the sharpest of which is called Social Prescribing, which can help people in ‘social trouble’ and take the pressure off health services (which often prove not to be unsuited to the task anyway).

Advocated by the World Health Organisation, integrated widely into the UK’s National Health Service and emerging in Canada, social prescribing is a route to good health for those whose loneliness is making them sick.

Rather than reaching for a clinical answer, social prescribers help people identify what connections are missing from their life. That’s not as obvious as you’d expect.

Researchers tell us that social connections are the most critical factor in our longevity, but we put them last. So, it’s not surprising many of us need help identifying what’s making us blue and what’s out there to make us better.

People are then supported to achieve their social health goals, through community activities, volunteering, arts and culture and environment as some examples. For some, help in planning is enough, whilst others need support to get socially fit. Personalisation is essential. 

Compared to medical prescribing, social prescribing treats the cause of isolation related illness, rather than band aid the symptoms. Most of the people we’ve supported tell us it wasn’t a pill or a mental health plan they needed, just a helping hand to re-connect.

We can’t let Australians get sick because of loneliness, especially when there’s an effective answer which complements existing services and takes pressure of emergency rooms and GPs.

That’s why we’re calling on government to recalibrate their responses to the health impacts of loneliness and explore social prescribing schemes which emphasise prevention and early intervention.

The Consumers Health Forum of Australia and Royal Australian College of General Practitioners have both called for social prescribing to be integrated into the Federal Government’s 10 Year Primary Health Care Plan.

It’s time to do things differently. Here’s an opportunity to spare Australians and the medical system from the next wave of COVID’s health impacts we’re all bracing for and make it easier and less costly to emerge from the pandemic.

It’s time to add social prescribing the Australian way to our policy toolkit.

Jo Winwood is the head of Be Someone For Someone, an initiative of Feros Care.