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Newsletter November 2019

Connecting with You

Our Loneliness NZ Newsletter

Tēna koutou katoa, Talofa lava and warm Pacific greetings.

Welcome to our second newsletter!

As a new, developing organisation, we are are inspired by the possibility of living in a country where all of us have genuinely meaningful relationships and high levels of connectedness. This is based on the ideal where discrimination in any form no longer exists, and tolerance is replaced by genuine acceptance of people, whether strangers or those we are more intimately connected with.

We envisage a happier and more productive environment, with reduced mental and physical illness. Early intervention and prevention of loneliness will enable us to have increased life satisfaction, with higher levels of health and wellbeing.

We continue to enjoy meeting people who are wanting to address rising loneliness, either in their community or within themselves. Thank you for being in touch!

Our Vision and our Purpose

Last newsletter we talked about how we began. This time we would like to share more about our vision and purpose.

Our vision “Conquering loneliness in New Zealand” comes from the collective participation of all New Zealanders, where having meaningful intent to treat all others well on all occasions, and the desire to remove the stigma of loneliness, become the norm. We really encourage all to be generous in spirit and action!

He taonga rongonui te aroha ki te tangata.

We recognise that a small measure of loneliness which drives us to develop positive relationships is healthy. We are looking to eradicate unhealthy loneliness – which comes from subconscious emotional responses such as fear, mistrust, rejection and betrayal. This kind of loneliness has a ripple effect, deeply affecting our own and our fellow Kiwis lives – beyond only those that initially became lonely.
Our purpose is to improve wellbeing, and life satisfaction, by increasing meaningful social connectedness amongst New Zealanders.

By fulfilling our purpose we are looking to have better outcomes for ourselves, family, friends and whānau – in our various communities (which include our workplaces, and where we spend our leisure time) and therefore in our economy.

Supporting our vision and purpose we have developed a strategic plan from now to 2023. This is on our website – under About Us/Our activity.

Our Advisers

One of our aims is to educate our communities to understand loneliness from a wider perspective. We have absorbed the latest research in loneliness, and recognize the significant advances that would come from applying this research.

We have been delighted to connect with some more of our New Zealand researchers, across the country. As a result we are so pleased to introduce two further academic advisers who have joined us!

They are:
  • Dr Denise Taylor (Victoria University of Wellington).
  • Dr Sarah Wright (University of Canterbury).
Below is a very brief introduction. Their profiles are on our website – under About us/Advisers.

What a pleasure to now have representation from the South Island on our wider team

Dr Denise Taylor is a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health. Denise’s interest in loneliness and social isolation is part of her wider interests in social prescribing and mental health. Denise is a qualified pharmacist, and has worked with national health in the UK, so we are very fortunate she brings such significant experience back to NZ.

Dr Sarah Wright has a high passion for understanding loneliness – making loneliness a significant focus of her research career. After several years in management consulting firms, Sarah’s academic work led her to publish research on loneliness and human relationships within groups and organisations. Sarah is a senior lecturer in the College of Business and Law.

Our view on the global epidemic of loneliness, and Government involvement

Many people aren’t aware of the reasons loneliness has been labelled as a global epidemic, and the importance of Government involvement. So we offer a brief overview of what we have seen as the key influences that have highlighted the global situation. To give an international perspective we give some information on the UK Government approach. And we also give our view of our New Zealand Government’s current position on loneliness.

Essentially research into loneliness is not new. However what has changed is that separate pieces of research and evidence are now fitting together – and looking at these more holistically has changed our understanding of loneliness, so we more appreciate the complexities and nuances.

By doing so creates a greater urgency to address the loneliness issue – doing our part nationally.

Millions of Lonely People

The first aspect of understanding the global epidemic is that there are millions of people worldwide who are struggling with loneliness. The UK figures are in the region of 9 million people! Some United States figures give the impression of the number of adults with loneliness as double a few decades ago. An Australian university survey showed a quarter of its adult population experiencing loneliness.

In New Zealand, we have many of the same issues experienced globally. We are experiencing around 650,000 people having some level of loneliness in any four week period; and in just two years, between 2014 and 2016, the estimated number of Kiwis (aged 15+) who felt lonely all or most of the time increased by 70 percent, from 140,000 to 240,000.

 

While we recognize that each country might be representing its figure on the levels of loneliness in a different – perhaps incomparable way – the issue is clear… loneliness in adults is significant and has been on the rise. (We are yet to understand the issues relating to loneliness in children.)

Global Trends Driving Loneliness

Secondly, we can now recognize global trends driving loneliness such as globalisation, urbanisation, individualism, falling birth rate, and longevity.

These have an impact on all countries in the OECD. While many of the societal changes benefit other areas of our lives, the unforeseen perverse affect on people has been to increase loneliness.

On our website, we highlight about 30 societal changes. Some of these are easy to recognize – such as the increased use of digital technology significantly reducing face-to-face connections. Others are less obvious such as the effect of income inequality, where we now recognize that financially struggling people tend to withdraw from others.

Understanding Evolution and Loneliness

Third, the late Distinguished Professor John Cacioppo – a world-renowned social neuroscientist –- made great strides in our understanding of evolution and loneliness. Our genetic make-up as humans is all about our survival and creating the next generation of people. We are designed to have some loneliness to motivate us to connect to others. However we are not designed to have chronic loneliness any more than we are designed to have chronic sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst or pain. And just like our thirst cannot be overcome with any liquid (many liquids will poison us!) our loneliness can’t be overcome with just being with any person (some people just are not good for our wellbeing!).

How you meaningfully connect with others is critical to overcoming loneliness.  The sadness is that people have become lonely sometimes by actual mistreatment, and sometimes by an ongoing perception of being mistreated. Lonely people therefore often struggle to form meaningful relationships, and have a higher mistrust of people and fitting into groups. Even without being aware of their affect on others, the way a lonely person behaves in turn could foster loneliness in people with whom they connect live, work or socialise.

Serious Health Consequences

Fourth, Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad is a leading psychologist and expert on social connections. She has highlighted the association of loneliness with illness such as heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, and alcoholism.  She puts loneliness on par with obesity and substance abuse.   Feeling lonely increases the risk of death by 26%. So her message was clear – “Loneliness kills” and she urged that dealing with loneliness become a public-health issue.  

 

World Health Organisation and support networks

Along with this, the World Health Organization lists “social support networks” as a determinant of health – recognizing that both the support from families, friends and communities, and culture (customs and traditions, and the beliefs of the family and community) affect health. 

Stigma talking about Loneliness

Fifth, during his term as US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy visited a significant number of communities. He found that people were more easily able to tell stories of their struggles with addiction, violence, chronic illnesses like obesity, mental illnesses like anxiety and depression….and yet often underlying these – and took time to come out – were the stories of loneliness.

So he recognised there is very much a stigma to saying “I’m lonely”. So it was Vivek Murthy who labeled loneliness an “epidemic”, and did so as a way of urging governments to play a role in trying to confront it.

This idea was also picking up steam in countries like the UK, Denmark, Australia, and Japan, where there had been a recognition that the adverse affects of loneliness in individuals extended to becoming a burden on their public health systems and was detrimental to their economy.

While there are many other supporting pieces of evidence and research, these seem to us to be the primary ones influencing the shift to increased focus on loneliness.

When we consider the way forward, we can now see that understanding loneliness is complex.

While loneliness was originally seen as a senior’s social isolation issue, there is greater understanding that loneliness does not discriminate – and anyone can become lonely. 

Paradoxically diminished quality relationships between people results from both high interconnectedness and physical isolation. Any situation which does not foster healthy meaningful relationships can affect a significant number of people to become lonelier. 

Benefits of Government Involvement

People who consider it’s not the Governments role to find us friends are quite right; yet probably are not appreciating that loneliness is not simply an individual variable. We do not become lonely only because we lack friends.

As well as how people relate to each other (and treat each other) in all aspects of our lives, loneliness is exacerbated and perpetuated by the way society – and its communities and organizations – are structured. There is a contagion effect to loneliness, which means that loneliness can spread within families, workplaces and community groups – crossing over from one aspect of our lives to another. 

Governments are in a prime position to influence population wide change – an essential element to overcoming loneliness in a country.  This is no different to government intervention for other social and health outcomes – like addressing smoking and obesity, removing the stigmas from being gay or having depression, helping refugees settle – where Governments can bring together policymakers from many sectors to educate and strategise necessary change for the wider population.

Loneliness is complex, intricately linked with mental and physical health, is not well understood, has a stigma, can significantly affect any number of communities, and affects our economy. Given this complexity, bold early intervention prevention steps need  to be taken, as well as steps to curb the rising numbers of already lonely people.

Way forward in the UK

Internationally the UK has taken the lead, appointing a Minister for Loneliness to enable a cross-government approach to tackling loneliness. Their Government has made a strong start to building a national conversation on loneliness, to raise awareness of its impacts and to help tackle stigma. Their report issued in October 2018 “A connected society: A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change” is an inspiring read.

By embedding loneliness as a consideration across government policy, the report highlights how they can give greater recognition to the wide range of factors that can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and support people’s social wellbeing and resilience.

Our New Zealand Government and Loneliness

While the Government’s “Wellbeing Budget 2019” released in May includes a section “Taking Mental Health Seriously” there is no funding that has specifically been earmarked for addressing loneliness – or increasing meaningful connections – for our population as a whole.

 

Given that a core aspect of addressing loneliness is to support enhanced relationships (enabling us to better connect at a deeper level), the ripple effect is very likely to help with our country’s other issues – such as ongoing discrimination and bullying, high sexual and family violence, and suicide rates.

However, we are pleased that some Treasury staff continue to focus on loneliness.  The first we see is in an Analytical Paper: Wellbeing and Mental Health: An Analysis Based on the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework (AP 19/01). The author shows the strong link between mental health, loneliness and overall life satisfaction; that loneliness is, by some distance, the wellbeing indicator most strongly associated with low mental health wellbeing; and gives the numbers that 41% of people who were always or often lonely also had low mental health wellbeing.
The second is in a post included on the Treasury website the Rangitaki: staff insights blog: New wellbeing analysis on mental health and loneliness. The author highlights that while loneliness may seem to be – literally – an individual problem, it affects the mental health of a significant proportion of the New Zealand community, and has flow-on effects for New Zealanders’ overall wellbeing.

So our desire is that the Government gives more consideration to addressing the issues of loneliness in a cohesive way, as a national issue for all our people.

We look forward to when that might happen, as we firmly believe conquering loneliness would significantly enrich the mental wellbeing and life satisfaction of our people.

We would really appreciate your insights on this article… so please do connect with us through our contact us page.

Our 2019 Performance Report

We recently submitted our very first Performance Report for 2019 to Charities Services. We used the opportunity to give a comprehensive overview of our new organisation, as well as the required financial reporting for the year ended March 2019.

Connecting with us

To everyone reading this… thank you for your interest in addressing the loneliness problem in New Zealand.

We wish you very meaningful connections with others  – your family, friends and whānau – and anyone else less fortunate than you, especially anyone who might be experiencing loneliness and/or living in social isolation.

Hei konā mai. Noho ora mai

Cathy Comber

CEO and Trustee of Loneliness NZ

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