Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast, on loneliness

November 13, 2018


SUBJECTS: Loneliness, a government response to loneliness.

FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Australia could soon have a dedicated Minister for Loneliness, as a response to the growing problem of social isolation in this country. A landmark report released late last week found that one in four Australians are lonely and there is real evidence now that that can have real consequences for people’s mental and physical health, even their life expectancy. Opposition frontbencher Andrew Giles is working on a loneliness policy that Labor plans to take to the next election. I spoke with Andrew Giles earlier. We’ve had several reports lately looking at the level of loneliness in our community, and what they’ve found amongst other things is that it affects both genders and almost all age groups. Loneliness does not discriminate. Why is it time for the government to get involved.

ANDREW GILES MP: Well now we’ve got some Australian data, Fran, that shows just how prevalent loneliness is in Australia. That one in four Australians experience loneliness, that one in five don’t have someone they feel they can talk to, that so many Australians don’t engage with their neighbours. So we know the extent of loneliness, and the report is also telling us about the consequences. Poor for general health, very poor for mental health. This is something that government has to respond to, if we’re serious about looking after Australians.

KELLY: To look at the findings that came out last week on loneliness, and those statistics you mentioned there, one in four do not feel they have a lot in common with the people around them and one in five rarely or never feel close to people, rarely or never feel they have someone to talk to and don’t feel they have people they can turn to. How can a government policy help with that?

GILES: Well I think there are two bits to this. One, we should think about how government policies have caused this, and I’m really concerned about how increasing inequality may be affecting this. The other one is to look at how government policy at a range of levels can boost social connectedness. That’s been a big focus of the approach of the UK government, which is something I think we should be looking at over here.

KELLY: It’s a great headline and it makes us all feel concerned I think, the notion that one in four of us are feeling lonely, that 50% of Australians reported they felt lonely for at least a day in the previous week, 27% felt lonely for three or more days and 30% rarely or never felt they were part of a group of friends. That makes us feel bad. Is it getting worse, is it something that is changing?

GILES: Yeah, it’s changing in a couple of respects. I think we do need to understand more about what is happening in that regard. Overseas evidence suggests that younger people are more likely to experience loneliness than older people. That didn’t come up in the Australian data, but it is something I think we need to think about. As is the impact of social media, it seems it has not been a force for good when it comes to people maintaining social connections and strong relationships. It seems to me also that there must be some possibilities on how it can be a more positive force in that regard.

KELLY: Can you give me some statistics around that, what did the loneliness report find?

GILES: The loneliness report in Australia found and equivalent level of loneliness across all age groups in Australia, but a big report done in the UK found that people aged 18-24 were more lonely than any other age group. So there’s a discrepancy there, which I think is something we just need to understand a little bit better.

KELLY: In terms of understanding it a little bit better, are you thinking of proposing for a potential Labor government a minister for loneliness, or are you thinking about a loneliness policy group or unit that works across all portfolios. What are you thinking of?

GILES: The policy discussion is actively underway at the moment. I think there are three key bits to it. One is to raise awareness of the issue and its consequences and I’m really pleased to see this debate now taking place in Australia. The second one is to build on the research base, which is absolutely essential if we are going to have any successful policy intervention. The other one is to get a sense of the role of government right. My main goal is to ensure that this is a priority for government and it is a whole of government priority. In the past when we’ve talked about loneliness it has generally been in the context of specific policy portfolios silos and aged care specifically. We know now that simply looking at loneliness through an aged care lens will not deal with the vast majority of the problem. What I think we should be concerned about is to strengthen social connectedness right across the community, and that is a whole of government challenge.

KELLY: And to strengthen social connectedness, again it is a phrase we all relate to, but what does it actually mean, how do we do that, why are people unconnected? Is it because they don’t have transport links, is it because they’ve been in the detention system in some way and there’s not enough help when they get out, is it because they’re not staying at school because they’ve got social disadvantage? What are the elements that are leading into this in real terms?

GILES: Indeed it is all those things and you’re right to say that loneliness doesn’t discriminate, but we know there are certain groups who engage socially. Sometimes it is because of geography. We have a very wide range of programs that are in fact designed to bring people together, whether it is about support for sporting groups or community organisations, so part of it may be simply looking at how these existing programs can be better tailored to make sure people who are currently unconnected have those opportunities. Others may look at issues around, for example in the UK some very effective work has been done about seeing general practitioners as what is being referred to as social prescribers, understanding that social connectedness is something that occasionally drives people to go to see their GP and if it can be an outcome of their visit to the GP.

KELLY: There is a real cost to this apart from the social isolation and the fact that people are feeling disconnected. You can actually put almost a dollar figure to it in terms of health impacts, can’t you?

GILES: Well you can, it is actually quite shocking to see that these studies that have consistently shown that loneliness can be as bad for you as smoking or obesity, and through that public health lens, moving a bit away from that social policy aspect, it is striking for me that we have a challenge that is on par with smoking and obesity, yet it hasn’t really been spoken of at all.

KELLY: And while it has an impact on your physical health, it also has an impact on, and I guess this is obvious, on your mental health. It increases a person’s likelihood of suffering depression up to 15%, likelihood of an early death by 26%. Those are startling figures, but not particularly hidden are they? It is obvious in a sense, we know this already.

GILES: Yes we know it, but we haven’t really associated it with any national responsibility. There hasn’t been a sense that this is a call for any public policy action. It is just something which has been happening. Something I think that most Australians intuitively understand is not a great thing, that people feel isolated, that people feel they can’t form relationships. I guess what I am trying to do is to turn this general sense of community unease into a call for government action.

KELLY: So Andrew we’ve had these two reports in recent times, the HILDA survey on loneliness and the Australian loneliness report just last week. Do we have any markers to indicate whether this issue is getting worse, people’s feeling of social isolation and loneliness?

GILES: The picture is mixed in that regard, although there are many indicators that suggest young people are more likely to be lonely than previously, which indicates that this is a growing problem.

KELLY: What do these statistics say about Australia, modern Australia? The fact that one in four of us do not feel that they have a lot in common with the people around them, one in five rarely feel close to people, and 27% of us felt lonely for three or more days. What does that say about us?

GILES: Well I think it is really shocking. We often celebrate that we are into our 27th year of economic growth, but it doesn’t say much for the society that is being built by that economic growth if so many Australians feel this way, and even more so, this is carrying awful health consequences for them.

KELLY: You have a motion that will be put to Parliament, I understand, on the need to better understand the policy implications of loneliness, it is co-sponsored by Liberal MP Julian Leeser which suggests you might have a bipartisan approach to your loneliness policy, but what do you hope this motion will do?

GILES: Well there are two things: one to further the debate, and to make clear this can be an issue that’s bipartisan. We may end up disagreeing on aspects of the policy response, in particular on issues around whether inequality is increasing, but I’d like to think that everyone in Australia and everyone in mainstream politics in Australia can take seriously the challenge of putting together a society in which so many Australians don’t feel lonely and don’t carry those kinds of consequences into their lives.