Loneliness is a Major Public Health Issue
17 November 2023
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that loneliness is a major public health issue. The COVID isolation worsened the situation, but at least drew attention to it. Declining family size, the stress on the individual, and the ability to live alone have worsened the long-term trend to loneliness.
The Japanese have recognised this for some time, but have not mastered the problem. In Australia it seems only to get attention when some old person is discovered dead for months when the smell emanates from their flat or their electricity is cut off. In the younger age groups, suicide may be the first and last sign.
From a medical point of view, I have quite a lot of patients that have long-term painful problems that cannot be resolved and render them unable to work. They are often financially embarrassed also, a fact that they often try to hide. They are recognised as depressed but people are reluctant to acknowledge that medications do not help much. This week I had a patient who asked if the insurer would pay for a companion dog, as he could not really afford to feed it. We discussed dog sources and sizes. My guess is that workers compensation insurers will be willing to pay for tablets that don’t work as they are a ‘medical expense’, but not a little dog that may be a more practical solution.
An article in the Guardian surprised me that loneliness is a bigger problem in Africa than in Western countries. I had assumed that the strong family ties and interdependency would make it a worse problem in Western rather than African societies.
What is needed is governments to recognise that there is a value in the relationships between people. It used to be called ‘social capital’, but the term seems to have fallen out of favour. We could encourage ‘Meet Your Neighbour Day’, street Christmas parties and other activities that encourage interpersonal contact beyond the social media apps. Both civic and domestic architecture could give more thought to encouraging human to human contact.