Loneliness remains a major social issue in the community, according to a second survey on the subject, with a growing estimated 55 per cent of Maltese saying they feel alone.

Preliminary data from the Faculty of Social Wellbeing research “clearly indicates a serious problem”, said its author Andrew Azzopardi, who is calling for “urgent and tangible actions to respond to this growing and complex phenomenon”.

The findings of the 2022 survey on loneliness – almost an “exact replica if not worse” of its 2019 version – showed this was a major issue that affected the community on emotional, social and mental levels.

It pointed to a lack of policy actions to address loneliness three years after the problem was highlighted.

Back then, the percentage stood at 43.5, marking a “drastic” increase this time round.

Conducted with Marilyn Clark and Jamie Bonnici, the data was collected in July through standardised questions in telephone interviews to Maltese aged 11 upwards.

It shows the majority of participants (90.7 per cent) felt they could cope with stressful situations and unpleasant emotions; almost three-quarters (74.3 per cent) could call on their friends whenever they needed them; and 63.3 per cent could “completely trust” many people.

Two out of 10 experience a general sense of emptiness

But the study also reveals that a tenth of respondents do not feel positive about their life and two out of 10 experience a general sense of emptiness.

Around one in 10 admitted they did not feel there were many people they could lean on when they had problems and reported they did not have a close friend – more common among those aged 51 and over, compared to younger age groups.

Almost a third of participants said they missed having a really close friend, with the figure being higher among the 11-19-year-old age group (39.2 per cent).

Over a quarter of the respondents missed having people around them, with slightly more males than females admitting to this.

The highest percentages of these were aged between 20 to 34 (34.1 per cent), followed by those in the 11-20 age group (29.1 per cent).

Around a quarter of respondents indicated they missed “the pleasure of the company of others”, the survey showed. It also found the feeling of a lack of people to “completely trust” was stronger in participants with worse self-rated physical health.

Not having enough people to feel close to, the sentiment of one in 10, was highest among older respondents, while a tenth also found their circle of friends and acquaintances too limited.

Action is now needed

While expressing satisfaction that, through the 2019 study, the faculty had placed the issue of loneliness on the national agenda – with the general population, policy makers, NGOs, social operators, political parties and politicians now speaking about it – Azzopardi pointed out that, as yet, not much was being done in terms of direct policy actions.

“Now, we urgently need to walk the talk,” said the project leader, adding the evidenced-based data and the numbers were all there and policy proposals were piling up.

“What is needed is action,” Azzopardi said, highlighting some ideas, including more widespread access to talk therapy and closer work with GPs, who can indicate physical ailments that are possibly a result of loneliness.

He also listed improved coordination between services like the government’s LEAP, the Church’s Dijakonia and soup kitchens.

Azzopardi also proposed “bringing to life” a national policy and strategy on

suicide ideation and prevention, as well as writing up a loneliness national policy and strategy.

The country should contemplate a change in its economic model, putting the person at its centre, and the “drive for status, money and estate, as if there is no tomorrow, should be evaluated”, he said.

Azzopardi also suggested rethinking the concept of institutional care, as well as appointing a parliamentary secretary on loneliness and a commissioner for loneliness.

COVID-19 is a poor excuse

“Loneliness is costing us a great deal of money. The ‘excuse’ I see coming is COVID-19, but I think that would be minimalistic and a shallow argument,” Azzopardi continued. Even if it were the case, which he maintained was unlikely, “these numbers are so high it would also mean no work is being done to address the post-COVID traumas”.

A study carried out in 2020 by the same faculty showed that 90 per cent of the Maltese experienced loneliness during the pandemic.

Its same authors had then said the findings provided empirical evidence of the substantial increase in loneliness within the Maltese population during COVID-19.

But Azzopardi insisted the pandemic simply exposed “stuff we did not want to show, such as changes in family dynamics, a lack of solid community services, families drifting apart, and new family models lacking the necessary support to function effectively”, he maintained.

Azzopardi believed the statistics would not have been very different without the pandemic.

The idea was to conduct the loneliness survey every three years to identify any trends and determine how social policy was responding.

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