We may be living in the golden age of communication when contacting friends and relatives by technological means has never been easier. However, so many people suffer from the often continuous pain of solitude and loneliness that health experts fret about the crisis of loneliness that poses a grave threat to public health.
It is a paradox that feeling lonely is a shared experience. People in all walks of life and strata of society can be affected by this epidemic that devastates the lives of many. Unlike epidemics that put at risk our physical health, like obesity or substance abuse, loneliness rarely attracts much public debate. It is not often that we hear about the consequences of this epidemic that could lead to mental illnesses like depression.
A study by the Faculty for Social Well-being of the University of Malta revealed some worrying statistics that confirm the extent of this social reality. Two out of every five Maltese over the age of 11 suffer from loneliness while at least one out of 10 people do not feel positive about their life. Dean Andrew Azzopardi, who led the study with Marilyn Clark, defined these statistics as “quite worrying”.
Such studies help to dispel some fallacies about the phenomenon of loneliness. For instance, it is not just older people with physical health problems that experience solitude when their active lifestyles are drastically changed on retirement. Children with vulnerable personalities can often struggle to be socially connected with their peers.
Loneliness cuts across generations and reaches the elderly and the young, the well-off as well as those struggling to make a living.
Public health authorities need to address this epidemic with as much determination as when they deal with physical diseases that may have a more dramatic effect and impact on people but can often be controlled more effectively than mental health threats. A multidisciplinary approach to dealing with loneliness in society has the best chance of success.
The health authorities’ role is to provide adequate mental health support facilities in the public health system to address the needs of all sectors of society that could be affected by the phenomenon of loneliness. Schools need to have trained child psychologists to identify as early as possible cases of severe loneliness in a particular environment and to prescribe an action programme to mitigate the debilitating effects of this phenomenon on children.
The elderly will always be at high risk of succumbing to loneliness and depression as their often inactive lifestyle can magnify the feelings of sadness, hopelessness or dejection. The public health system that is presently underperforming in the mental health sector must beef up its resources to help those who live alone and with little or no social contact.
However, the best chance of success in dealing with the loneliness epidemic is the high level of support that must be given to charities focused on dealing with the phenomenon of loneliness and its consequences on children, single people living on their own, the elderly, and the terminally ill. These organisations often work in silence but struggle with finding the human, financial and physical resources they need to reach their objectives.
Ultimately, a fair society is one that cares about its vulnerable members, including those who suffer from loneliness in silence.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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