Taking social isolation seriously

Recent research supports the idea that feeling socially isolated can impact on our physical as well as mental health (1).

One of the reasons I love running groups is that a facilitated space can help people connect with others quite deeply in a way that feels safe.

Quite simply, connecting with others feels good and is good for our health, but can become hard when we are nervous, shy, or don’t trust others because we have been subjected to violence or abuse. Sometimes poverty, transport issues or physical isolation can make it hard to see and spend time with people. Similarly mental health challenges can contribute to social isolation, because our behaviours can be seen as ‘hard to deal with’ or even just ‘unfun’, leading to social connections falling away over time, which can further add to the distress a person in crisis is experiencing.

Social connection has many benefits; a sense of mutual support, feeling less alone in times of crisis, practical support such as help with problem solving or with physical tasks, an opportunity for fun and laughter, hearing stories of other people’s inner worlds that show us we are not alone in our feelings, and more.

Some statistics out of the United Kingdom (2) show that social isolation and loneliness in older adults is widespread:

  • 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003)
  • Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010)
  • Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014)
  • 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont, 2013)

The relationship between isolation and loneliness is a complex one, involving social contact, health (physical and psychological) and mood. (3)

Now we are beginning to see that poor social skills, social isolation and loneliness may also be associated with poor physical health, and pose a risk to future health in the same way that other lifestyle factors like smoking do.

“We’ve known for a long time that social skills are associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety… But we’ve not known definitively that social skills were also predictive of poorer physical health. Two variables — loneliness and stress — appear to be the glue that bind poor social skills to health. People with poor social skills have high levels of stress and loneliness in their lives.” says Chris Segrin, head of the UA Department of Communication (4).

The good news is that social skills can be learnt, and new patterns of relationship can be developed.

So what do we do about this?

Lifeline suggests the following actions if you are feeling lonely:

  • Connect or reconnect with friends and family – staying in contact with loved ones can prevent loneliness and isolation. If your family don’t live nearby, technology can help you stay in touch
  • Get out and about – regular outings for social functions, exercise, visiting friends, doing shopping, or simply going to public places can help
  • Get involved in your community – Try a new (or old) hobby, join a club, enrol in study, or learn a new skill. Try looking online, at your local TAFE/Community College, library or community centre for things in your area that might be interesting to you
  • Volunteer – helping others is a great way to help yourself feel more connected
  • Consider getting a pet –pets are wonderful companions and can provide comfort and support during times of stress, ill-health or isolation
  • Get support – If loneliness and social isolation are causing you distress, you should discuss your concerns with a GP, counsellor or a trusted person

In my personal life I am going to try to be more regularly in touch with people who may be socially isolated, and in my work life I’m going to try to learn more about social isolation and how formal programs and interventions can help reduce the stress of loneliness.

How about you?

Final thoughts…

If loneliness is an issue causing you distress please take it seriously and consider taking some steps to reduce it. Here are some links to services if you’d like to talk to someone to help you come up with a plan.

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(1) See more at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171106090116.htm

(2) Campaign to End Loneliness www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

(3) GOprogramme,Findings17 (available at: www.growingolder.group.shef.ac.uk/ChristinaVic_F17.pdf)

(4) See more at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171106090116.htm