Ill health due to loneliness costs Australia $2.7bn each year, report suggests

By Donna Lu
.A woman sitting alone on a bench near the beach
Figure of up to $2.7bn per year associated with loneliness provides a strong case for investment in initiatives to mitigate loneliness, says report co-author Astghik Mavisakalyan. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Loneliness costs Australia an estimated $2.7bn each year due to adverse health outcomes, and has worsened throughout the Covid pandemic, according to a new report measuring social connectedness.

Curtin University researchers have found that Covid-19 restrictions dramatically amplified a steady decline in social connectedness in Australia.

Report co-author Astghik Mavisakalyan, an associate professor at the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, said lonely people had worse general and mental health outcomes. “They’re more likely to smoke, more likely to drink more and exercise less,” she said. “They see their GP more frequently, as well as visit hospitals more frequently.”

The report estimates that the overall average cost associated with each person who becomes lonely in Australia is $1,565 a year.

The researchers measured social connectedness based on four key areas: the nature and frequency of people’s social interactions, available social supports, interpersonal trust, and socio-economic advantage.

“In the period from 2010 to 2018, there has been a 10% decline in connectedness,” Mavisakalyan said.

Social isolation was most prevalent among vulnerable populations, including those who are disabled, socio-economically disadvantaged, or from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, the report found.

There was a worrying link between poverty and loneliness, Mavisakalyan said. The analysis drew comparisons between individuals “who are very, very similar in terms of their host of characteristics but are different in terms of their income”.

Even when all other factors were controlled for, the loneliness gap between the richest and the poorest was significant, suggesting “poverty may also lead to the social exclusion of individuals”, Mavisakalyan said.

Women scored higher than men on social connectedness across all ages, but also reported being lonelier than men – particularly girls under 17 and women older than 65.

“The figure of up to $2.7bn per year associated with loneliness provides a strong economic case for investing into initiatives that mitigate loneliness in our society,” Mavisakalyan said. “Participation in activities that create meaningful connection with others and a common purpose should be a priority.”

Unsurprisingly, face-to-face interactions and community participation dropped throughout the pandemic.

That Covid-19 has had an outsize effect on young people “comes out very vividly in our analysis”, Mavisakalyan said.

Throughout lockdown periods, young women were twice as likely to feel lonely than young men, with 67% finding not being able to see family or friends difficult.

“Young women especially are disproportionately more frequently engaging in social media interactions, perhaps as a way of dealing with some of those challenges associated with being isolated,” Mavisakalyan said.

The findings come as separate analysis from the Australian National University found that severe psychological distress hit an all-time high in October, despite the majority of Australians believing the worst of the pandemic was over.

The survey of nearly 3,500 adults found rates of psychological distress worsened between August and October this year, particularly for 18- to 44-year-olds, and those older than 75.

Of the respondents, 12.5% – one in eight – reported experiencing “severe psychological stress”, up from a previous high of 10.6% in April 2020. It was the highest proportion the researchers had noted in nine rounds of Covid-19 impact monitoring.

Study co-author Prof Nicholas Biddle, of the ANU, said lockdowns in NSW, the ACT and Victoria – which were only beginning to be eased when the survey took place – were likely contributors to the mental distress of respondents.

“The question will be whether, now that things have opened up, there’ll be a return to a pre-Covid baseline,” Biddle said.

Just over half of respondents believed that the worst of the pandemic had passed. “There’s real uncertainty about whether the positive trajectory will keep going or whether there’s going to be another return to quite significant mental health shocks and lockdowns,” Biddle said.

Fear of infection was four times higher than it was in April, but similar to April 2020 levels: 40% of respondents believed it likely they would contract Covid-19.

“The difference between now and last year was that infection then was a more impactful outcome,” Biddle said. “Now, especially for those who’ve been double vaccinated, it clearly is a concern, but it’s nowhere near the same concern as it was last year.”

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