The Loneliest Stats Also the Most Alarming

Business,  Principals

According the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s third ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, loneliness was the number one source of personal stress for many of us last month. In fact, the stats show that loneliness affected more women (28%) than men (16%).

When dealing with a global pandemic, the chief culprit for stress activation is anxiety. And anxiety can lead to loneliness. That is, anxiety affects your emotional and physical health and can increase risk for loneliness. Anxiety can be isolating, since it can be difficult to explain how you feel. Eventually, a continued lack of social connection might make you feel even worse. Science tells us anxiety and isolation exact a physical toll on the brain , increasing our vulnerability to disease by triggering higher blood pressure and heart rates, stress hormones and inflammation among people who would normally never get sick.

Ultimately, prolonged loneliness can lead to an increase in mortality rates. There’s already a rise previously identified with middle-aged men. However, more concerning is a research paper released by KPMG on behalf of Suicide Australia in the last quarter of 2019 which forecasts the country’s suicide rate is set to rise by 40% in the next decade unless risk factors such as debt, isolation and loneliness are seriously addressed. That’s 1,300+ more suicides annually.

Loneliness is not just a feeling. It’s a biological warning signal to seek out others, much as hunger is a signal that leads a person to seek out food, or thirst is a signal to hunt for water. Historically, human connections have been essential for our survival. During the coronavirus pandemic, the loneliness signal has skyrocketed for many with limited ways of alleviating it. Lack of a healthy lifestyle is a causal link when there’s disruption in our usual patterns.

“Around one in five people (19%) reported that they were experiencing difficulties maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which was more of a problem for those aged 18 to 64 years (22%) than those aged 65 years and over (9%),” says ABS Program Manager for Household Surveys, Michelle Marquardt of last month’s survey.

The survey also highlighted changes to people’s lifestyles during the period early-April to early-May, including:

  • 22% who said they are eating more snack foods such as chips, lollies and biscuits;
  • 14% who said they are consuming more alcohol, and 10% who said they are consuming less;
  • 58% who reported spending more time in front of their television, computer, phone or other device; and,
  • 29% who reported less frequent consumption of takeaway or delivered meals, while 38% spent more time cooking or baking.

Compared with March, fewer people were taking the following precautions in late-April to early-May:

  • keeping distance from people (94% compared with 98% in March);
  • purchasing additional household supplies (21% compared with 47% in March); and,
  • purchasing additional medical supplies (8% compared with 29% in March).

The proportion of Australians who said they were wearing a face mask remained about the same – 17% in March and 15% in late-April to early-May. “Australians have also made significant changes to their working lives, with nearly half (46%) of all working Australians working from home in late April and early May,” Marquardt adds. “Of those who were not working from home, 89% reported they couldn’t due to the type of job they had. Women were more likely than men to have been working from home (56% compared with 38%).”

Marquardt further highlights that, “During the period from early April to early May, one in six Australians aged 18 years and over (17%) used a Telehealth service. Almost half (43%) said the Telehalth service was a replacement for a previously arranged face-to-face appointment.”

The intersection of multiple challenges during COVID-19 from health to employment, finances and access to help has produced an extreme confluence of circumstances that significantly increases the risk of depression. So, just as we’re concerns about a pending economic recession, we should worry about a pending social recession—a continued pattern of distancing socially, beyond the immediate pandemic, that will have broader societal effects, particularly for those most vulnerable. For the moment, we can only hope this is temporary and not something that will become a more chronic state.

If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.