The Australian experience of loneliness

Alison Brook
25 October 2018

In September this year, Relationships Australia released new research based on the findings from 16 waves of Household Income and Labour Dynamics of Australia survey data from 2001-2016 that identifies which Australians are most likely to feel lonely and socially isolated, and when.

The research entitled Is Australian experiencing an epidemic of loneliness? reveals that one in six Australians is experiencing emotional loneliness, one in 10 lacks social support and just under 1.5 million people are reporting that they’ve been lonely for a decade or more.

By any measure these statistics are troubling.  That so many Australians feel alone, disconnected from their communities and lacking in deep and sustaining relationships is of concern to all of us.

When you couple these figures with what we now know about the health effects of loneliness, you begin to realise just how serious this issue is for our country.

Loneliness has serious health consequences. In terms of the effect of your body, loneliness is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day and associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure and the onset of disability. A Stanford University study found that older people who are socially isolated experience poorer health, and have a risk of early death that is 31% higher than those who are not isolated.

Relationships Australia research reveals that poverty, unemployment and poor relationships are significantly associated with loneliness and lonely people make greater use of the health system.

  • Lack of employment and/or receipt of income support is associated with higher risk of loneliness for both men and women, with the highest rates for younger men in receipt of income support
  • Single parents, particularly single fathers, are most likely to experience a lack of social support with almost 40% of younger fathers reporting a lack of social support and more than 40% reporting emotional loneliness.
  • Widowed men and women under 65 years of age also report high rates of loneliness.
  • Our data shows that people in de facto relationships are lonelier than people in other relationship types.
  • People with poorer health were also more likely to report higher rates of emotional loneliness and a lack of social support.
  • Overall levels of loneliness for men are higher than women for all 16 waves of available data, although the reverse is true when examining the proportion of people reporting emotional loneliness.
  • The number of people moving in and out of loneliness has been persistently high over the past decade.
  • A substantial minority of people experience a lack of social support while a substantial majority report emotional loneliness at some time in their life.

You can hear more about our research in my interview with Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

Relationships Australia believes there is a compelling case for a national discussion about the health and social risks posed by loneliness. Over coming months, we will be joining with others across a broad spectrum of community organisations to bring this discussion to the fore.

We also need to know more about the causes of loneliness and, to that end, we will be conducting further research this year to drill down to better understand why people are experiencing loneliness and what circumstances enable them to reintegrate into social connectedness.

Alison Brook is the National Executive Officer of Relationships Australia.

Relationships Australia State and Territory websites