New Australian research reveals health toll of increasing loneliness

Thursday 8 November 2018

Young man sunset

Young Australians reported the highest levels of lonliness among those surveyed.

In summary

  • The Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology have undertaken most comprehensive study of loneliness in Australia
  • Lonely Australians have significantly worse physical and mental health than connected Australians
  • One in four Australians report being lonely

Lonely Australians have significantly worse physical and mental health than connected Australians, according to a new study that shows one in four Australians report being lonely.  

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) and Swinburne University of Technology have undertaken the most comprehensive study of loneliness yet completed in Australia. The survey of more than 1,600 Australians confirms that loneliness is strongly connected to poorer quality of life, lower psychological wellbeing, higher social discomfort and poorer quality social networks. 

The Australian Loneliness Report has been released to mark the start of Psychology Week 2018, an initiative of the APS that aims to increase public awareness of how psychology can help Australians lead healthier, happier and more meaningful lives. This year’s event focuses on the power of human connection. 

The findings are concerning from a health perspective. People with higher loneliness levels report more physical health symptoms, including sleeping difficulties, headaches, stomach complaints, nausea, colds and infections. Loneliness also lowers the level of psychological health, with sufferers reporting higher levels of depression, anxiety, social difficulties and loss of confidence. 

Data shows anxiety about social situations is common among Australian adults, with one in four experiencing significant social difficulties. Those surveyed report the most challenging social situations to include meeting people at parties, thinking of things to talk about, mixing with unfamiliar people, speaking with someone in authority, mixing in a group and talking to attractive people. 

Nearly 30 per cent of Australians don’t feel part of a group of friends, while one in four don’t feel they have a lot in common with the people around them. 

The research also shows nearly 55 per cent of the population feel they lack companionship at least sometimes, with the number highest in young adults (62 per cent) compared to seniors (46 per cent).  

Dr Michelle Lim, of Swinburne and scientific chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, says chronic loneliness was on the rise in Australia. 

The results highlighted how important it is for people to establish strong meaningful relationships to enrich their lives and protect their physical and mental health, and wellbeing.  

“If you don’t know where to start when it comes to making new friends, focus on the relationships you already have. Quality is more important than quantity. Strengthening existing relationships and building intimacy is important,” Dr Lim says.  

“More often than not, people are surrounded by friends. But if these friendships do not meet a person’s needs, such as feeling supported or connected, then they will still feel lonely even if they have many friends.” 

Relationships with families, friends and neighbours were also analysed. Data showed that, while most Australians regularly see friends and family and can lean on them for support, a third of Australians have no neighbours they see or hear from on a monthly basis. Nearly half have no neighbours they can call for help. 

APS President Ros Knight says everyone benefited from being able to connect with other people. 

“Whether it’s family, friends, neighbours, people we work with, or the strangers we meet, social connections make our lives richer. They are vital for good health,” Ms Knight says.  

“Talking to a psychologist can help you overcome social difficulties, including social anxiety. It can also help you learn communication skills that can improve your relationships. We’re never too old to learn new skills, especially when it comes to enjoying the benefits of good relationships.” 

While there were strategies individuals could undertake, she says that Governments also needed to be looking at the impacts of loneliness and building interventions into health policy. 

She adds: “These findings are important as they demonstrate that loneliness is a health issue. We need to consider approaches to loneliness as part of our health and mental health strategy.” 

To launch Psychology Week 2018 and help people develop the skills and confidence to reach out to others in order to get the benefits of a more connected life, the APS has released a series of evidence-based tips to help Australians boost their connections.

The APS is hosting a series of events:

  • A live event on Saturday 10 November (10am – 12pm) at Melbourne’s Federation Square, at which members of the public can meet APS psychologists who can talk about improving their connections
  • An online Q&A with Dr Michele Lim on Facebook on Sunday 11 November (6 –7 pm)
  • Regional events across the country run by APS psychologists 

Visit the website PsychWeek.org.au for the tips and for more information.