An editorial published in the British Medical Journal today has highlighted the need for governments to recognise the personal, social, and economic costs of loneliness and the need to adopt a public health approach to tackling the issue.
In the joint editorial IPH Director of Ageing Research and Development Professor Roger O’Sullivan, Professor Gerry Leavey from the Bamford Centre (Ulster University) and Professor Brian Lawlor from the Global Brain Health Institute (Trinity College Dublin) said loneliness is costly to individuals and society and should be a priority for governments.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dispelled the myth that loneliness is just an older person’s problem and public health interventions must now take a life course approach to tackling loneliness. “Although the focus is often on older people, loneliness is experienced across all age groups,” they said.
The BMJ editorial comes as a new Australian study, also published in BMJ today, highlights pre-pandemic (2000-19) levels of loneliness across 113 countries, revealing significant geographical variation in loneliness rates as well as key data gaps. This new research provides useful baseline data for loneliness levels but also highlights the need to improve data collection, in particular in low and middle income countries
Professors O’Sullivan, Leavey and Lawlor also highlighted the need to “segment” the experience of loneliness for at-risk groups and to address the social and structural factors influencing the risk of loneliness.
“A public health approach to loneliness means confronting the social and structural factors that influence risk of loneliness across the life course, including poverty, education, transport, inequalities, and housing,” Professors O’Sullivan, Leavey and Lawlor write.
They added that a “better understanding” is required of the intensity and impact of the experience of loneliness, as well as cultural differences and geographical variations.
In addition to understanding the causes of loneliness, consideration must also be given to the various types of loneliness – emotional, social, and existential – as well as frequency – transient, situational, occasional, and chronic.
Public awareness campaigns are also needed to deal with stigma and stereotypes around loneliness and to highlight the value of community involvement and participation.
“It is important to facilitate healthy social choices, making it easier to connect with others in the community, change work environments, and increase opportunities for building trust and social capital,” Professors O’Sullivan, Leavey and Lawlor said.