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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Loneliness is a growing social problem. We must tackle this major public health concern

Studies show that people who enjoy a stronger sense of social connection tend to be less prone to depression, writes Justin Thomas

The global "loneliness epidemic" is not restricted to the elderly. Getty Images
The global "loneliness epidemic" is not restricted to the elderly. Getty Images

A sense of connection to other human beings is vital. Without it we can feel trapped in an unending and unwanted state of solitude; isolated, alone, lonely. Like love, loneliness is a complex (composite) emotion, a blend of anxiety and nostalgia with a base note of sadness. Unlike love, however, loneliness is typically experienced negatively. If love is the opposite of hate, loneliness is its absence.

In some nations at least, loneliness has been identified as a growing social problem. Last week, for example, the UK government appointed Tracey Crouch as minister for loneliness. This appointment comes on the back of a government report on social isolation. Among other gloomy statistics, the report suggests that around 200,000 older people hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. The report described the impact of loneliness and social isolation as being: “twice as harmful as obesity, and… comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic”.

Over the past few decades, studies have repeatedly found that people who enjoy better social relationships and a stronger sense of social connection tend to be less prone to depression, recover quicker from depressive episodes and are less likely to relapse. Beyond depression, social-connection also promotes better physical health outcomes too. Research supports this observation across an array of conditions, including heart disease, dementia, and strokes. When people talk or sing about feeling so lonely they could die, it’s poetic. It’s also very real.

The "loneliness epidemic" is not restricted to the elderly. The UK report also talks about elevated rates of loneliness among young people too. University students, who feel like they don’t fit in, spending days in relative isolation with nothing but college deadlines and digital devices for companionship and support.

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In nations like the UAE, where relatively collectivist cultural values continue to shape society, loneliness might not be such a problem, in fact, a lack of privacy and “me-time” is a common complaint. Many of the UAE’s citizens continue to live in extended families. Furthermore, cousins, aunties, and uncles all enjoy a status that can seem strange to people from more individualistic societies (for example, the US, the UK and Australia), and, if they exist at all, residential care homes for the elderly, are rare. They certainly aren’t the booming and often scandalised industry that they have become in some nations.

Even surrounded by family and friends, though, we can still experience loneliness. It’s not necessarily physical presence that counts, but an actual psychological sense of connection, a sense of being, understood and attended to, and the ability and opportunity to reciprocate. Being lonely in a crowd can be particularly perplexing and distressing, especially when we look around and see other people, apparently, enjoying healthy levels of social connectedness.

Beyond the UAE’s citizens, however, there is also a large community of expatriates; the UAE has one of the highest expatriate-to-citizen ratios in the world. Many of these expatriates are physically separated, disconnected, from their long-term friends and extended families. Some expatriates might have no family members or friends in the UAE at all. Such a situation is obviously fertile ground for loneliness to blossom, and loneliness is a gateway state to depression.

Promoting psychological well-being – happiness, if we must – has to include initiatives that encourage and facilitate human connectedness. We need more efforts that help bring us together, and we need educational experiences that don’t neglect to develop the skills required to help us connect. At a grassroots level, this could be arranging social activities (book clubs, storytelling circles, team sports). At the educational level, we need to devote more time to fostering social and emotional competencies in school children.

As biological organisms we are inherently social, loneliness is the psychological pain we feel when our social needs are not met. I wish the UK’s new minister of loneliness every success with her new portfolio. Targeting this growing global public health concern is time and effort well spent.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University