Since the dawn of man, human beings have, from their infancy, hungered for some level of interpersonal connection or social intimacy. The inclination, scientists have long said, is a primal instinct to which we're all hardwired.
Notwithstanding this, the results of a recent Red Cross survey suggest chronic loneliness - as distinct from social solitude or seclusion - is on the rise and now shadows the lives of nearly 40 per cent of people living in regional areas. In metropolitan areas, the figure this festive season is only slightly lower.
Red Cross director of volunteering Penny Harris said the reported increase in loneliness owed its existence to the enforced isolation of social distancing and lockdowns occasioned by the pandemic.
"The dislocation of normal patterns [of life] has had a real impact on different groups within the community," Ms Harris said. "Over 50 per cent of people told us they feel like they have fewer social connections and that the pandemic has really changed the nature of their relationships as well as their worldview."
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The survey, which canvassed the views of 1000 people aged 18 and over, revealed some 40 per cent of women were experiencing loneliness, compared to 26 per cent of men. Ms Harris said the difference in results between the genders arguably spoke to the uneven impact of the pandemic on men and women.
"Women have really borne the burden of the pandemic and perhaps disproportionately so," she said. "They're often working while also providing home-schooling and other carer responsibilities. As a result, finding time to really look after themselves perhaps hasn't always felt possible."
But Michelle Lim, clinical psychologist and chair of charity Ending Loneliness Together, said the apparent gender difference might better be explained by the shame or stigma many attach to feelings of loneliness.
"Loneliness is often considered a sign of vulnerability - a sign there is something wrong or deficient about you," Dr Lim said.
"We know social and cultural norms can produce an under-reporting of loneliness in men, whereas women generally give themselves permission to recognise their experience of loneliness."
Young people in the 18 to 29 years age bracket also reported high levels of loneliness in the survey, a result Dr Lim said aligned with both current and pre-pandemic research.
"All data consistently shows loneliness is something that tends to disproportionately affect young people," she said. "That trend is also reflected in the global data that we collect."
"Young people are faced with different kinds of social challenges, such as embarking on forming new social groups or trying to navigate peer relationships.
"But older people are also particularly vulnerable to loneliness, and that is very much due to challenges around loss of health, bereavement or a change in living circumstances."
The Red Cross survey also found nearly one in three people living in regional areas, including Ballarat, had not made any particular plans for Christmas Day and, presumably, would spend the day alone. For some of Ballarat's most vulnerable - the homeless and the poor - this was because pandemic-inspired uncertainty had, for the second year running, prevented front-line agencies from arranging their customary sit-down Christmas meal.
Kim Boyd, a community development worker with Anglicare Victoria Ballarat, for instance, said the organisation's usual Christmas dinner would not be going ahead this year.
"We're mindful that sitting down and having a chat gives people that opportunity for social connection," Ms Boyd said.
"But there's a risk we'd be forced to cancel the event for reasons out of our control and, in that situation, there's a chance those people will not have made backup plans."
Meanwhile, it's a similar tale for the renowned Our Lady of Help of Christians' annual Christmas luncheon in Wendouree, now in its thirtieth year. One of the luncheon's organisers, Sandra Dillon, said 2021 would mark the second year the event would be offered in take-away format only.
"The fact that we're not gathering together really places a dampener on that Christmas spirit," Ms Dillon said.
"When we do gather, everyone - the people, the volunteers - all bring so much goodwill and excitement, and so I think we're all going to miss that very much."
UnitingCare Ballarat has, likewise, also substituted its usual seated meal for take-away Christmas packs, but for a different reason. Breezeway Meals program coordinator Jen Wright said the organisation had been forced to maintain the take-away model because it "cannot discriminate" against the unvaccinated.
"We can't actually invite people in to be seated because Uniting won't turn away those who haven't been vaccinated," Ms Wright said. "We will not discriminate against any of our clients."
Ms Harrison said the Red Cross hoped the sobering reality of the sheer scale of loneliness within the community would prompt people to "give the gift of time" by reaching out to others this Christmas.
"People can really help others by thinking about people in their network who might be feeling a level of isolation and checking in with them," she said.
"When you see your neighbours, strike up a conversation for five minutes instead of just waving or not stopping at all or call a person you've lost contact with and reconnect."
In Dr Lim's view, such strategies work to reduce loneliness and militate against its multitude of detrimental health consequences.
"Loneliness is associated with poor heart health, type-2 diabetes and increased mortality," she said. "It's also linked to significant mental health problems, from severe depression, social anxiety to clinical paranoia."
Robust research also suggests loneliness can lead to substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
In recent years, experts have warned of a looming "loneliness epidemic". But chronic loneliness - that feeling of distress, distended - is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon. Loneliness 'epidemics' have been reported in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and a host of European and Asian nations.
In a mark of the growing seriousness with which some countries view loneliness, some - like the United Kingdom and Japan - have established ministerial portfolios for loneliness. It's something to which a growing number of voices in Australia have lent their support.
Indeed, the prevalence of chronic loneliness is such that it might better be viewed as a pandemic in its own right, albeit one that is not immediately obvious to the eye.
What is immediately obvious, however, is that for so long as the COVID-19 pandemic remains a live threat, the problem of chronic loneliness will only deepen within the community.
No comfort for the lonely this Christmas
If you or somebody you know is experiencing distress, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
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