The loneliness epidemic

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In this world of high connectivity, thousands of social media friends and followers, ‘loneliness’ seems like a non-concern! However, the loneliness epidemic is real and it is consuming the entire world. The British Government appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address the issue of isolation among a large section of the country’s population.

With the breakdown of traditional families, increasing migration, growing disconnectedness and hectic city lives that leave little time for socializing, there is a growing loneliness epidemic creeping into Indian cities as well. Social media has further compounded the problem by making people ready to connect virtually but diminishing the importance of person-to-person connections. 

Samaira (name change) 25, moved to Mumbai to start her career. Having left her family and close friends behind, she has vibrant professional links but no real connection to anyone in the city. The professional high keeps her driven through the day, but loneliness creeps in as she returns from work, weighing her down with fatigue and causing bouts of depression. Contrary to what many of us would like to believe, loneliness is not something that impacts only the elderly. A study conducted by health insurance provider Cigna in the US found that millennials and gen-Z were lonelier than older generations.

In India, a 2017 study by Age well Foundation across 300 districts found that a whopping 47.49 per cent of elderly people suffer from loneliness. Understandably, the situation is more pronounced in urban centres and metros where a large number of people live alone, away from the comfort of families. A nationwide survey conducted by NIMHANS in 2016 estimated that around 13.7 per cent of India’s population suffered from different mental illnesses, with around 10.6 per cent of them requiring immediate attention. The study concluded that residents from urban metros where isolation and stress are more pronounced had a greater prevalence of different mental disorders. 

The hazards

Long term loneliness can also have harmful effects on physical health. Deficiencies in social relationships are associated with an increased risk of developing Coronary Heart Disease, stroke and diabetes. Loneliness is also associated with increased incidence of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. People who are lonely are also at higher risk of early death as compared to people with greater social connections.

In fact, a 2017 study found that social isolation, loneliness, or living alone boosted the chance of premature death. At the same time, poor coping mechanisms and addictions such as smoking and compulsive behaviour are found to be more common among people who are lonely. Among elderly people, loneliness is also associated with increased cognitive decline and worsening of health. 

Need social support

There is no better therapy than the comfort of your family. It is important therefore to maintain close ties of kinship not just with your closest family members but also with the extended ones. With shrinking family sizes and breakdown of the joint family system, loneliness is often also found among children and adolescents.

Increasing migration and geographical dislocation also results in a loss of identity.

While it is difficult to reverse social evolution, steps can be taken at different levels to help individuals cope with being ‘alone’ and find ways to strike real friendships. Here is what must be done:

Spend quality conversation time with your children

In the pursuit of raising super achieving children, many parents tend to lose out on cultivating a connection with their kids.

So, the kids spend the entire day running from school to swimming class to dance class. At the end of the day, there is little time left for having a real conversation with the child. Also, we must encourage children to develop close bonds with members of the extended family.

Guard against technologically-induced loneliness: Even if you are lonely, it is advisable to not seek excessive comfort in your digital device; rather step out of the house, join a community or cultural organization, volunteer for social service, pursue a passion and in the process find new friends who share your wavelength. 

Support groups at workplaces

Not only must workplaces strive to offer better work-life balance to employees, but they must also institute regular availability of a counsellor to help people cope with displacement and isolation.

(The writer is the director of Poddar Wellness Ltd)

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