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28 July 2022
In the second of our two-part series, Salvos Magazine talks to Salvation Army counsellor Warren Draney and case manager Maris Depers about loneliness and social isolation.
Salvos Magazine: Are social isolation and loneliness issues that you see in your work?
Warren Draney: Loneliness is definitely an ongoing problem. The statistics show that one in two (50.5%) Australians feel lonely at least one day per week, while one in four (27.6%) feel lonely for three or more days.
These issues have been increasing for years, but COVID-19 has impacted them heavily. The pandemic, in some ways, has trained us not to be with people. Protective and necessary health safety measures have increased our isolation and anxiety.
We know that friendships happen with proximity, and we need to be near others to develop and grow relationships. This was a challenge, even with the caring arrangements and online activities during the pandemic.
Human beings are social beings – we need to feel part of a group and a sense of belonging. Our western lifestyles are now a lot more transient and it can be harder to establish and develop friendships.
SM: What impact can loneliness and social isolation have on people?
Maris Depers: Lonely people are shown to have poorer mental health, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and more social anxiety about relationships. These issues are also associated with poorer physical health outcomes. Entire families and communities are affected.
Given that many people live alone, don’t feel connected to a friendship group or are struggling with financial, work, health, relationship and other issues that prevent them from developing relationships, this is something we need to continue working on and addressing.
We want to live in a world where there is ample opportunity and funding for all to participate, and we can aspire to create that world.
SM: How do you distinguish social isolation from loneliness?
WD: Research has shown that loneliness is related more to quality rather than quantity of relationship. We may know a lot of people, but our relationships with them may not come up to hopes or expectations. We may feel lonely in a crowd because of what is happening around us.
We can be socially isolated, not see many people, but we have good quality relationships with those we do see or connect with. As people age, they tend to have fewer friends but a deeper quality of relationships. The research also shows that the over-65 age group are not as worried about relationships as those in the 18 to 25-year cohort.
Of course, it depends on why people are isolated. Poorer mental health or trauma will cause people to withdraw and doesn’t allow them to have healthy relationships to help the healing process. If people struggle with addiction or are grieving, they are often disconnected from family and friends. Language barriers, caring responsibilities, relationship breakdowns, health, culture and many other issues also play a role.
SM: How can online connections help?
WD: These can help sidestep physical barriers such as health or disability issues and can often make social contact attainable and accessible. All you need is literally in the palm of your hand. Many groups find this helpful, including those with social anxiety.
As much as the pandemic has caused increased social isolation, it also forced us to work hard and find novel ways to connect, such as through Zoom trivia and games, regular family chats and check-ins and reconnections with family and friends around the country and world. Hopefully, some of this will continue, even if we can often now engage face-to-face.
There is evidence that, for others, online connection is important, but they don’t attribute the same value to those connections. They know and interact with people but don’t necessarily consider them deep friends they feel comfortable accessing support from. It’s mixed and complex.
SM: What are some good starting points for safely making new connections?
WD: People can feel less lonely, even by having brief or casual conversations with people they don’t know or don’t know well. This could be the local barista, supermarket attendant, a person at the dog park or community hub.
There are also free walk and talk groups in different communities, which are especially good for men. Local Salvos and other churches also offer free or low-cost activities and meeting points in different areas.
MD: We all have to find answers to developing connections, whether that is having a chat with a neighbour as we bring in the bins or volunteering with a local organisation to be valued and included as part of a team. Humans are like velcro, if you put them close enough together, they will connect.
It’s helpful to develop a habit of short exchanges with those we share the world with, as well as focusing on deeper connections. This can include communicating more at work as people return to the office and intentionally interacting with them.
SM: How can people help those they see who are isolated?
MD: Pick up your phone and think about it in terms of who is socially isolated. Send them a text as a starting point. Be mindful of the people at risk in your life and go the extra step to maintain contact, visit or call, or offer respite in trusting relationships to those who might need a break from caring for others. Book time with them or schedule an activity together to help them feel connected. Contact relatives and old friends and talk to neighbours. Be friendly to people and help them to feel included in groups.
WD: Not everyone who is isolated is lonely, so don’t automatically make that assumption. And some people recharge by being on their own. Be sensitive to how much time people need for themselves and for outside connection.
Assisting the traumatised can be more complex and often requires long-term work and professional help. We can meet people where they are at, in a safe environment, build their trust and give them choices and affirmation. We cannot, though, do this alone.
We can all consider our own needs and expectations too. How do I recharge? What are my relationship needs? Am I placing unrealistic expectations on too few relationships?
MD: The pandemic forced us to recognise that we are social beings, and we have found ways to do it differently. Let’s not lose those connections and that sense of being part of something bigger.