Loneliness affects us all so why are we not talking about it more?

Mental health distress has a clear link with loneliness, as does our general health

A teenager in lockdown by her window during the pandemic. Studies say the pandemic triggered a crisis of social isolation across the world. AFP
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Recent research in the UK has found that people have been turning to smart speakers, such as Amazon Alexa, as a way to ease loneliness.

An Ofcom report published this month spoke to 100 participants about what they used such devices for, and while the majority of respondents used their smart speakers to listen to music or receive news updates, some said they regarded such devices as a companion, particularly if they were a single-person household. “It’s like having a friend in the house,” said one of the people surveyed. The same research also found that ownership of such devices had nearly doubled in the past two years.

While some of that expansion in ownership of Alexa and similar devices could be explained by the ubiquity and utility of technology in our lives, it also speaks to the world’s recent history of pandemic lockdowns and acts as a form of rebuttal to the social isolation that the global health crisis provoked in the first place.

In early 2020, as coronavirus cases rose, people sheltered at home and the search for solutions intensified, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the pandemic as representing something far bigger than a public health emergency. “It is an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis,” Mr Guterres declared.

In hindsight, the pandemic was always destined to be more than a health crisis. And so it has proven, delivering a host of consequences that will, in all likelihood, take years to unwind.

Much of the digital world relies on connectivity and connectedness and yet, those interactions can feel hollow and fleeting

The economic crisis is now well-known and definitely proven, with parts of the post-Covid-19 world consumed by a deepening cost of living crisis, rising interest rates and general instability. Even the big tech architects of those voice-activated digital assistants, previously seen as unsinkable vessels of profit and transformation, have experienced the treacherous economic tides of 2022.

The full scale of the social and human crisis, meanwhile, is just beginning to appear. Loneliness may have emerged as the unwanted collateral damage from all of this.

As suggested at the start of the pandemic, many of us have changed our habits radically after long periods of sheltering at home or seeing friends and family far less than previously. Life is undoubtedly different now to what it was in early 2020.

We know that so much of the digital world that we all inhabit relies on connectivity and connectedness and yet, those same interactions can sometimes feel hollow and fleeting. The quantity of social interactions within our lives is probably higher than it has ever been, albeit most of it occurring within the digital world, but many will also say that the quality of many of those interactions is not high.

Social media is such a powerful and transformative part of our daily lives, but it is also capable of alienating and promoting feelings of low self-esteem or prompting withdrawal by some. I doubt many people see it as a harmless or neutral force in their world.

The sacrifices that many people had to make during periods of lockdown and, more generally, via requirements to work from home or even to follow instructions to “socially distance” may have all contributed to increasing levels of disconnection.

Research in the US found a small but significant increase in loneliness during the pandemic and cautioned that it should continue to be monitored through future studies.

Separate research by the UK government, also published earlier this year, identified what it described as “clear links between loneliness and mental health distress”. Their data found that a broad range of people were at risk of experiencing chronic loneliness. They included the young, as well as people living with disabilities and those on lower incomes.

The straight line between social withdrawal and possible poor mental health is not difficult to discern, but there is also increasing evidence that loneliness can be just as damaging to general health. In fact, the risks to general health may “rival those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity", according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a national public health agency in the US.

Experts don’t always agree on what an appropriate response to this may look like, but certainly it requires action at all levels of society – from government to communities, workplaces and schools – to tackle loneliness and, in all probability, recognition of it as a potential broader crisis in the making.

This is a time of year, of course, when many UAE residents will be thinking about friends and family elsewhere in the world or, in many cases, making trips to see loved ones for Christmas and New Year. There is much to be thankful for today after those pandemic-era travel restrictions upset so many plans in the past. It was only this time last year that the Omicron wave of Covid-19 cases proved so disruptive and this year is the first time in three Decembers that travel is returning to close to pre-pandemic levels.

It is also a time of year, as 2023 approaches, to take stock of our lives and count up what we have done well and what we could do better. And, surely, it is a moment to remember what has been left behind by this years-long health crisis as it slowly recedes from view.

How we reconcile a world where increased connectedness could end up inducing greater feelings of loneliness and withdrawal will be key to our future.

Published: December 23, 2022, 4:00 AM