Katie Cavanna: All the ingredients for second pandemic... of loneliness

Loneliness is associated with health problems

Loneliness is associated with health problems - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the feelings millions of us are experiencing during the current coronavirus pandemic is loneliness. In our combined efforts to stay safe and save lives, our usual ways of seeing family, friends or just familiar faces have been put on pause.

Right now we exist in a space filled with tension – we’re desperate to connect but prevented from doing so for our own good, and the good of others.

Add in masks, which makes it difficult to ‘read’ faces and a general fear of contagion, further disincentivising mingling – and you have the recipe for a second pandemic.

This is the pandemic of loneliness, which was already worrying governments, scientists and health professionals long before the virus arrived.

Numerous studies have found loneliness is associated with a range of health problems – from addiction to depression to heart disease – and shorter life expectancy.

Obeying lockdown rules and public health orders that emphasise taking collective action, can strengthen social cohesion and limit the spread of the virus.

But the nature of this collective action – isolating ourselves – seems like a cruel cosmic joke.

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Lockdowns, social distancing, limits on gatherings, cancellation of community sport and live music and the shutdown of public spaces means we are kept away from each other.

This can result in difficulty forming and maintaining the very social bonds and resultant community spirit that will get us through the pandemic and allow us to bounce back quicker.

The Government is telling us to stay at home and only go outside for food, health reasons or essential work, to stay two metres (six feet) away from other people and wash our hands as soon as we get home.

That means we need to adapt how we connect with people and find new ways to stay in touch during this time.

Now, more than ever, is the time to keep up those strong social networks that act like a buffer against poor mental health.

We know that loneliness can be triggered by stress, and poor physical and mental health. Significant life changes also spark loneliness – from stopping work to losing someone you love.

Today’s coronavirus outbreak risks making even more of us feel lonely – and sadly, people who are already isolated and lonely may become more vulnerable than ever.

Social distancing and isolation are critical to preventing the transmission of this highly contagious virus; yet, these are acts that are intrinsically linked with various adverse psychological effects including loneliness.

Here are six facts about loneliness to keep in mind as you support yourself and others:

1 Loneliness can affect anyone - but everyone can help

2 Being alone will not automatically make you feel lonely

3 From phone calls to online bake-offs, you can still connect to people even from your own home

4 Our relationships and interactions need to be meaningful and satisfying to truly tackle loneliness

5 Just talking about feelings of loneliness helps

6 Looking after ourselves in general, and those around us, can protect against loneliness.

We can – and need to – throw everything at this problem once we open back up again.

It means Government investing in public spaces, such as libraries, parks and gardens and public squares. It means planners and architects designing apartments and workplaces around common areas and shared facilities that encourage serendipitous encounters.

It means, on an individual level, making an effort to connect with others in real life, the same way you would make an effort to stick to, say, an exercise plan.

With technology increasingly driving us away from real-life encounters, deliberate steps must be made to drive ourselves back to each other.

I have battled with loneliness this year. Reach out to those around you. Chances are, they are feeling exactly the same way.

This year has been one that has highlighted the power of community and the strength of human kindness. Do not suffer in silence - be there for each other.