Loneliness: a silent epidemic and the last taboo in Ireland
Lack of human contact can damage mental and physical wellbeing. It can even shorten lives, writes Alan O'Keeffe
Loneliness has become a silent epidemic in Ireland. So many people feel lonely that the problem is now "the most unrecognised health crisis of this generation", according to Dr Keith Swanick, chairperson of the Loneliness Taskforce.
Prolonged bouts of loneliness can affect physical and mental health, and reduce life expectancy, he said.
The group's new report urges the Government to fund a public awareness campaign to tackle what has become a nationwide problem.
The report stated loneliness hits young and old alike.
"I believe we can all beat loneliness, one conversation at a time," said the Mayo-based GP, who is also a senator.
He agreed "100pc" with Fr Brian D'Arcy, who described loneliness in Ireland as "the last taboo".
Dr Swanick said his patients would be quicker to disclose they were feeling depressed rather than admit they were lonely.
He said doctors need to be trained to ask the fundamental question: "Are you lonely ?"
Members of the taskforce came together in Dublin last week to launch their report, entitled 'A Connected Ireland.'
Professor Brian Lawlor, a consultant psychiatrist at St James's Hospital in Dublin, spoke of his years working in the southside Dublin hospital and how he encountered "a very high prevalence of loneliness" among patients in the local community.
He has a leading role in Mercer's Institute for Research on Ageing at the hospital.
He spoke of his earlier years at the hospital when some patients who were prescribed anti-depressants showed no sign of improvement. This may have been partly because no one had addressed their loneliness.
He said no one asked them that important question: "Are you lonely?"
Loneliness has been found to influence physical and mental health, including clinical depression, dementia and sleep problems; it can also adversely affect cardiovascular health.
There was still a lack of awareness about the problem of loneliness and many GPs would not know to even ask the question, he said.
Research has shown there is a connection between loneliness and ill health and that doctors and medical training needed to catch up with this research.
However, more research in an Irish context was needed now, he said.
He paid tribute to volunteers who contact lonely people in their communities. The benefits were not only felt by the lonely, as the volunteers also gained much by reaching out.
Professor Lawlor paid tribute to Dr Swanick, who is Fianna Fail's spokesperson in the Seanad on health and mental health, for his leadership and efforts in setting up the taskforce.
Sean Moynihan, chief executive of ALONE, the charity which supports older people who live alone in their homes, worked with Dr Swanick in the group.
"We need to make sure in Ireland that it is OK to say, 'I am lonely'," said Mr Moynihan.
Ireland's communities and lifestyles had changed rapidly, he pointed out.
"Previously, our social circles were made up of our families, our neighbours and our communities. Now, as our lifestyles change, we are required to put effort into these connections which were formerly an intrinsic part of everyday life.
"As our population ages and becomes more urban and individualised, people feel less and less connected to their communities," he said.
ALONE now has 1,200 volunteers working with people experiencing social isolation and loneliness. It planned to have 9,000 volunteers within the next five years, said Mr Moynihan.
The report recommends the Government spend €3m initially to combat loneliness. It also suggests that the Government should promote a public awareness campaign and sustain funding for research and initiatives into the future, including supporting volunteer action plans.
While the UK government has appointed a Minister For Loneliness, the Government should at least designate a specific minister and department to take on additional responsibility for combating the nationwide problem, it recommended.
The taskforce report included comments from people who described their own experiences of loneliness.
A college student said: "I have a feeling of emptiness that is hard to describe. Kinda like you ran out of petrol in the car."
Dr Eddie Murphy, a clinical psychologist best known for his appearances on RTE's Operation Transformation series, said his work on the taskforce underlined that loneliness was "a silent epidemic".
"Just like feelings of hunger or thirst make you eat and drink, the feeling of being lonely signals your need for human contact," he said.
"Loneliness affects all generations. People need to reach out. Just being physically present with someone can do a lot," he said.
Dr Swanick, introducing the report, said he requested that the Government set up the taskforce last year, stating that loneliness "never discriminates between young or old, between rich and poor and between urban and rural".
Despite the arrival of the most 'interconnected' era ever with social media, people were lonelier than ever, said Dr Swanick.
"The importance of personal contact and human interaction with others cannot be superseded by technology alone," he said.
Loneliness was "a major public health risk" and everyone had a role to play to reach out to others.
He quoted the old Irish saying: "Under the shelter of each other, people survive."