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Loneliness - a symptom or a cause of mental ill-health

Lived Experience Australia (LEA) has recently undertaken a study to understand the experience of loneliness for those affected by mental ill-health and their families and kin. Unlike many other research reports, this one uses the experiences of the people who took the survey in their own words to inform and educate.

"Everyone who responded to the questions we asked about loneliness did so with profound generosity, depth of reflection, and heart", said Professor Sharon Lawn, Chair and Executive Director of LEA. She continued "They shared their most private and personal thoughts. Some spoke directly to us through their responses, and many directed their responses to others with messages of support and hope."

The qualitative study asked people to share their experiences, and also provide insights into what might make a difference to them.

"Loneliness and social isolation make a person feel like a fringe dweller, excluded, irrelevant people can experience fear, anxiety, depression, self-loathing, poor self-confidence, and low self-image," one mental health consumer responded. "It is well known that poor mental health results in poor physical health as individuals think they are not worth the effort of looking after their physical health."

This comment aligns with previous studies showing poor mental health as a risk factor for chronic physical health conditions, while conversely, people with chronic physical health conditions are at risk of poor mental health.

Professor Lawn continues "In Australia, we need to develop a framework for social connection, understand what the indicators of loneliness are, and identify some real outcome measures. We are drastically in need of ways to reduce stigma associated with loneliness, and mental health more generally, and find ways to empower communities to support each other."

The Loneliness Report is another way Lived Experience Australia is participating in taking this conversation further. The research for this report, conducted across Australia and New Zealand, is adding to the evidence base for how to approach loneliness as a social and a health issue.

Mental health professionals can also help with loneliness, with both consumers and carers indicating that asking someone about whether they are lonely or not is a good first step. Some consumers and carers indicated that "holistic treatments and supports" should be considered, and providing connections to these is another important part of the process. This, and other insights from the study are being shared amongst psychiatrists through the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry (RANZCP) who partnered with LEA for this study.

"Ultimately, those who experience loneliness are the ones who can help us understand how we can make things better," report co-author Christine Kaine stated. "It was important to us to start this conversation, and now we have the stories that can help us define a better future for those experiencing loneliness."

One respondent iterated that even undertaking the survey was something akin to being therapeutic. "This survey is also a segment of a really important conversation. It feels good to be real with you all right now."

For LEA, this conversation is only the start. The report will be used to greater understand all the aspects of loneliness and to advocate for policy changes that improve social connection and reduce stigma associated with mental health.

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