For something so painfully singular and personally felt, there is – it seems – a dark new omnipresence to loneliness.
In a world of shutdowns and lockdowns and social distancing, this growing shadow of collective isolation has been labelled – without a hint of hyperbole – “the great health crisis of our time”. Witness the tentacles of the problem, insinuating themselves into our every wellbeing weak spot, starting, of course, with mental illness.
“Loneliness seems to be this pervading factor in depression, anxiety. It often comes up as a risk factor for suicide. But it’s far more prevalent than that,” says Sydney Morning Herald health editor Kate Aubusson. “We know it’s a factor in cognitive decline … There are meta-analyses that have shown the effect of loneliness – or the association – can be on par with the effects of obesity, of smoking, which is pretty alarming. It’s also linked to things like high blood pressure, poor sleep, bad eating habits and substance misuse.”
The phenomenon is not new. Writer Brook Turner, who investigated this affliction for the cover of Good Weekend on Saturday – When the loneliness epidemic met the coronavirus pandemic – says some experts trace the problem back to the post-war prioritising of economies over individuals, along with rising affluence and urbanisation, and of course, social media.