You’d probably expect the social restrictions put in place to contain and control Covid-19 in Victoria to lead to a spike in loneliness.
And you’d be right, in part.
Social isolation is not the same thing as loneliness. Someone can be socially isolated without necessarily feeling lonely; and vice versa, it’s possible to feel completely bereft and alone in a crowd.
But social isolation is a risk factor for loneliness; as is the anxiety a lot of people are feeling in the current health and economic crises.
For many weeks now Victorians haven’t been able to access their usual supports, including paid work, volunteering, playing sport, participating in community activities or just visiting family and friends.
So it’s not surprising that helplines are experiencing a high volume of calls from people feeling isolated.
But according to the organisation Friends for Good, who runs one such helpline, almost three million Victorians were experiencing loneliness before the pandemic.
In a society as apparently connected and frenetic as ours, that’s a huge and alarming well of loneliness, and a social problem that never got much attention.
One good thing that could come out of the Covid catastrophe is that we might get better at recognising and prioritising the need for real human connection.
It’s a dark time for many people, but some of the work being done to link up communities and give vulnerable people hope and resilience is pretty inspiring.
Just a few examples:
- Buchan Neighbourhood House established a phone tree for sharing urgent information during bushfire emergencies, but it’s now been repurposed into a weekly wellbeing check-in.
- Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria reports that many organisations call vulnerable members every week to ask about their wellbeing and groceries supply.
- Friends for Good’s FriendLine provides social connection via chats with volunteers by phone and online.
- Leongatha Community House is running online Zoom sessions for its music and language classes.
- Lively trains and employs young people to help older Victorians stay connected, which currently includes help like technology support and wellbeing check-ins.
- Men’s Shed Association has launched The Shed Online, which provides an online community forum for members to share experiences and discuss home DIY.
- Morwell Neighbourhood House is calling its client database fortnightly to check up on their welfare, and have also been asking clients if they have family or friends who’d benefit from a call as well.
- Neighbourhood Connect facilitates neighbourhood groups across Australia and is providing online tools and tips for communities to stay connected during the pandemic.
- Thomastown Neighbourhood House is calling vulnerable residents and dropping off flyers to letterboxes to reach people without internet access.
- Old Courthouse Community Centre in Casterton made daily calls to isolated members of the community before the pandemic, but now one volunteer is matched with one resident to foster meaningful connections.
As well as all this there’s anecdotal evidence of more community-led focus on reaching out to people who might be vulnerable to loneliness. Neighbours dropping ‘connection cards’; a rash of artful sidewalk messaging; even socially distant teddybear hunts to keep local kids happy.
There have also been government initiatives to tackle loneliness in the community. The Victorian Government is providing phones and extra data to some vulnerable households, and launching a phone-line to reach out to isolated Victorians. And the Federal Government has launched the 24/7 Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service, developed by Beyond Blue and including a phone-line staffed by mental health professionals.
More needs to be done, particularly for those groups who are most vulnerable to loneliness – including people who are young, culturally and linguistically diverse, living alone or unemployed.
And of course the digital divide is being felt more strongly than ever, now that anyone on the wrong side of it is unable to access resources that have moved online, or keep in touch with family and friends. This includes more than 300,000 Victorian households with no internet access at all.
The measures that are being taken by community organisations, individuals and governments are a recognition that loneliness is not, and never was, a peripheral problem.
Humans are social animals, and maybe we’d lost sight of how much our health and wellbeing depends on staying connected to each other.
Maybe Covid-19 will keep reminding us, even after the crisis has passed.
We would love to hear what your organisation is doing to keep people connected. Send Ben an email or give us a call on 9235 1000.