Dissecting the loneliness epidemic

Dissecting the loneliness epidemic
Róise McGagh asks: At the heart of it all, why are people lonely?

Why do we get lonely? A simple question with a very complex answer. Is making an effort to interact with more people in a day the way to cure it?

It is estimated that around 400,000 people in Ireland suffer from loneliness. When surrounded by people, you’re not technically alone but one might recall the feeling of loneliness in a crowd. And if it’s not so much about the amount of people in someone’s life, are we currently tackling the epidemic of loneliness with unsuitable solutions?

Last October The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) released their findings on loneliness among the older population. Just over a third of those over 50 experienced emotional loneliness at least some of the time and 7% felt lonely often. Older adults who lived alone were shown to be at a higher risk of social isolation than those who lived with others.

The researchers of this study from Trinity College Dublin have been collecting information on health, economic and social circumstances from people in different communities aged 50 and up since 2009.

There was a small decrease in the average loneliness scores over the six years, and there was no change in levels of social isolation over these first four waves of data collection.

It’s not just something that affects older people. Dr Liam Waldron studied loneliness for his PHD and researched the problem of loneliness among people with learning disabilities in the University of Aberdeen.

He says: “It is a very serious problem, people tend to think of it as just a problem of old age but they now know from all sorts of evidence that it’s not just a problem of old age it’s a problem that affects all age groups and ethnicities and genders and it’s absolutely a problem of the modern world in many respects.”

The BBC Radio 4 Loneliness Experiment took in 55,000 responses for their radio series. Their findings stated that young people actually feel the loneliest with 40% of people aged 16-24 saying they often feel lonely, in comparison to 27% of people over 75. People older than 24 said their most lonely years were during their young adulthood.

Dr Liam says: “one of the saddest conversations I ever had was with the mother of a child with learning disabilities and autism who said she worried so much about her boy in a mainstream school. I said ‘do you think he’s lonely?’ and she said ‘I suppose we all are, for example we have never been invited to a birthday party’.

“That kind of thing – you don’t think about these things but it’s the mother really, the little boy might be in a world of his own but the mother’s loneliness is absolutely terrible.”

Loneliness is currently considered a critical issue for public health, and there have been many responses to the issue over the years through the development of voluntary community groups such as ALONE, founded in 1977, Making Connections launched in 2009 and Friends of the Elderly which began in 1980.

In May 2019, the Minister of State for Mental Health, Jim Daly, launched a €3 million mental health fund to assist community organisations combat loneliness. A Loneliness Taskforce was also established in collaboration with ALONE. Meanwhile, in 2018 in the UK, the remit of the Junior Minister for Sport and Civil Society was expanded to include loneliness.

However, are these initiatives really tackling the issue of loneliness to the core?

Dr Liam thinks the issue is broader than that. “It’s no surprise to me that in the last few years, there’s been great work done really but the reports are not showing a decline in the numbers of people who are lonely.”

He told The Irish Catholic about how he interviewed a lot of people with not only learning disabilities but with physical disabilities, in particular, people confined to their home. Social media was able to help these people connect with the world.

“One of the things they told me was that they can understand why people say social media is bad, because there is evidence that it does create unrealistic expectations for people which reinforces loneliness.”

He says on the other hand that, particularly if the person has poor sight or is blind, the only people they know might be online. “It’s almost like they rely on it even though it’s not ideal, they don’t have the kind of life-giving friendships and relationships that they need so they are almost driven to relying on the very thing that has been shown to isolate some people even further.”

Unfortunately, it is impossible to, as Liam says “legislate for love… policies are very good and honourable but you can’t actually force people into loving relationships with each other. You can’t say that somebody has the right to life–giving friendships.”

“I think therefore you’re appealing to the core of what it means to be human when you’re talking about issues of friendship and loneliness.”

Many of the charities that attempt to tackle this growing epidemic do so by matching up people with other people or volunteers and having them meet once or twice a week. However, this might not be enough to separate the divide caused by social media, the decline of rural Ireland and a slow collapse of the local community in favour of online communities.

It seems that merely connecting people initially is not enough. In order to solve the growing epidemic, real deep connections need to be made. This is no easy feat.

Again, you’ll have heard the expression that people feel loneliest in a crowd, “they say I felt loneliest at my brother’s wedding; I felt loneliest on New Year’s Eve”.

“I would say, ‘but that’s when you were surrounded by your family and your friends so why did you feel loneliest then?’” says Liam. “I have a hunch that it’s not just about the number, there has to be something about the quality of those relationships.”

According to the BBC Loneliness Experiment, the five things people look for in a friend are trustworthiness, support, understanding, sincerity and loyalty. People who felt lonelier had a higher score in empathy but people who feel lonely have on average lower levels of trust in others.

They said that loneliness to them is having no one to talk to, feeling disconnected from the world, feeling left out, sadness and not feeling understood.

Loneliness is one of the greatest forms of poverty.”

In the case of elderly people, people with disabilities and those excluded by society it can be very difficult for them to meet people, and even more difficult for them to make meaningful connections.

Fr Peter McVerry says “If you’re homeless you don’t have any close friends; you don’t have the opportunity to build strong relationships.

“Loneliness is one of the greatest forms of poverty.”

Dr Liam feels that the only remedy is to focus on creating communities where people feel they belong “rather than on focusing on ‘inclusion’ alone, or even on equality. These are not necessarily the ways we can really tackle the problem of loneliness – we actually have to give ourselves not just a few hours a month to really address this epidemic”.