Reducing Loneliness Together

Multisectoral symposium searches for solutions to Australia's loneliness epidemic

To mark mental health awareness month, the University of Wollongong (UOW) hosted a symposium on a pressing issue affecting more than one in four Australians – loneliness.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to a hidden pandemic of loneliness, experienced around the world and across socioeconomic lines. Aside from being an unhappy way to live, profound loneliness brings with it an increased risk of depression, diabetes, dementia, self-harm and suicide.

Reducing Loneliness Together brought together academics, representatives of patients, carers and their families, and experts across the health, urban planning and greening sectors, all committed to working towards identifying potentially effective and equitable solutions to loneliness.

Loneliness is defined as a felt deprivation of meaningful connections, companionship and camaraderie. It is an uncomfortable response to a sense of emotional or social isolation.

While anyone can experience profound loneliness, research led by UOW researcher and event organiser Professor Thomas Astell-Burt has found that rates of social loneliness in Australia are higher in men, in poorer communities and in immigrant populations where English is not the first spoken language.

Event organiser Professor Thomas Astell-Burt explained, “We have brought together these experts because loneliness is an incredibly common issue that can have dire consequences, but for which there is little systematic evidence on effective, equitable and scalable solutions. We want to change that.

“The first step is bringing together key change-makers from within and outside of UOW to investigate what really brings a community together and enables people to feel a sense of connectedness, companionship and camaraderie. 

“My ARC Future Fellowship research examines a novel, nature-based solutions approach to help solve Australia’s loneliness epidemic. My colleagues and I already found that having green space nearby greatly improved the odds of feeling connected with your neighbours during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and also reduced the odds of becoming lonely, especially for people who live alone.”

Research published by PowerLab showed that nearby parkland reduced the incidence of loneliness by up to 25 per cent in people who lived with others and up to 50 per cent in people who lived alone. Their new results indicate one to two hours in nature each week saw a 110 per cent increase in the odds of finding relief from social loneliness.

“This shows the potential for rethinking loneliness as something we can reduce concurrently with efforts to improve urban liveability and to address climate change and biodiversity loss. Without these coordinated efforts, ours may indeed become a very lonely planet.”

Reducing Loneliness Together featured a range of speakers with diverse backgrounds, experiences and expertise who, through a process of sharing discoveries and discussing ideas, will work towards identifying potentially effective and equitable solutions to loneliness.

Speakers examined the role of the environment, particularly quality green spaces in improving mental health and connectedness, and how we can look ahead to planning communities rather than just houses, shops and roads.

Topics open for discussion included the latest findings on loneliness in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing, perspectives from diverse consumer and community groups on loneliness, living with disability, lonely life course transitions, the effects of loneliness on chronic disease prevention and management, the role of housing, park planning and programming, community gardening, what health professionals can do to reduce loneliness, and how we can define and take sustained, equitable action to address “Lonelygenic Environments” – environments that can lead to increased loneliness.

Nieves Murray, CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia, shared that social isolation and loneliness are the biggest modifiable risk factors for suicide.

“Loneliness can lead to suicidal ideation. More than 50 per cent of people who die by suicide do not have a diagnosed mental health condition.

“Like the UK and Japan, who have appointed government Ministers for Loneliness, Australia needs a national strategy to address this issue.”

Panellists discussed that one of the biggest challenges in tackling loneliness is developing a multi-sectoral approach, where infrastructure and health have equal footing in an action plan.

Solutions need to be informed by people across all levels of public, private and third-sector organisations, especially by people who are the least empowered to participate in the process. By bringing together a richly diverse group of experienced and influential speakers, the workshop represented an important first step towards identifying multi-sectoral loneliness reduction strategies that are scalable and effective for everyone.

Speakers at the event included:  

Professor Thomas Astell-Burt (organiser), ARC Future Fellow at UOW, Founding Co-Director-PowerLab

Neal Ames, Recreation and Open Space Planner, Waverley Council, National Advisory, Parks and Leisure Australia

Sheree Blanch, PhD student, School of Psychology, UOW

Dr Anthony Brown, Executive Director, Health Consumers NSW

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon, Executive Director Transport for NSW

Professor David Currow, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Health and Sustainable Futures), UOW

Dr Matt Daly, Research Fellow, Sustainable Building Research Centre, UOW

Professor Patricia M. Davidson, Vice-Chancellor and President, UOW

Associate Professor Xiaoqi Feng, NHMRC Career Development Fellow at UNSW, Founding Co-Director PowerLab

Dr Summer Finlay, Senior Lecturer, UOW

Dr Theresa Harada, Associate Research Fellow, UOW

Senior Professor Daniel Hutto, Senior Professor of Philosophical Psychology, UOW

Catherine Lourey, Commissioner, NSW Mental Health Commission

Nieves Murray, CEO, Suicide Prevention Australia

Phil Pettitt, Manager Community Greening, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

Cristina Thompson, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Health Services Research Institute, UOW