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A loneliness epidemic?

25 September 2018 Rev Keith Garner's Blog

loneliness 810x540Each year in a number of our major capital and regional cities, people from all walks of life come together at our Wesley LifeForce Memorial Services to remember loved ones and friends lost to suicide.

The services are a time to reflect, share our grief and gain mutual support. At our recent well-attended services in Darwin and Sydney some folk shared their significant experiences of losing a loved one to suicide.

Of all the funeral services I have conducted during my ministry, there are two kinds that stand out as being particularly painful. One is following the death of young children and the obvious unreasonableness that is present on such an occasion – and the other is when standing before and alongside families who are sharing the loss that comes as a result of people who bring their own life to a premature end.

The suicide of someone you care about is a devastating tragedy. It happens in the best of families and to the best of people – and leaves the shattered lives of shocked survivors.

I am convinced that in so many ways suicide is one of the most difficult deaths to face. There can be all kinds of mixed emotions present in someone’s loss.

The experience of loss can be devastating. Suddenly you learn to speak a new language and become a member of a club that you did not want to join. The world moves on and suddenly you are alone with your grief.

That is why we let people who attend the services know that they are not alone in their sorrow. Wesley Mission counsellors and chaplains are present to listen and support those who grieve. A remembrance wall offers people the opportunity to post photos of loved ones and write memories and tributes.

Yet loneliness itself is not confined to the experience of losing a loved one to death. It goes to the very heart of our need to belong and feel loved.

Loneliness is different from merely being alone or seeking solitude to find peace and grow. There are times in all our lives when we need to be alone and some people find their own company more helpful than others.

It is quite extraordinary in a world where we have claimed for ourselves a joined-up technology and brought internet connection across the world that loneliness appears to be on the increase. As you sit on one of our trains or buses, or as you walk down the street, note how many people are reading or sending texts or emails to each other.

There must still be places, communities, families, where people still talk to each other every day, care about each other, drop by and visit one another. Whether we live in the heart of a city like Sydney or one of the smaller towns in rural or regional Australia, the issue of loneliness is a very real one.

Last week, Relationships Australia released its findings of a national survey of 1,980 people which found that one in three Australians reported that they often felt isolated and a further 43 per cent said they felt isolated some of the time. One in 10 people lack social support, and one in six people are experiencing emotional loneliness.

Widowed women and men under the age of 65 experienced the highest levels of loneliness. The study also found that emotional loneliness negatively impacted upon the health and mental well-being of people, particularly among younger men.

The Report stated that: “socially isolated or lonely are at risk of premature mortality at rates comparable with other well-established risk factors, including lack of physical activity, obesity, substance abuse, poor mental health, injury and violence (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). The research literature also identifies relationships between loneliness and poor mental health, including depression.”

The report also noted that “single parents were most likely to experience a lack of social support. This was particularly the case for single fathers, with almost 40 per cent of younger fathers reporting a lack of social support and more than 40 per cent reporting emotional loneliness.” Men rely more on their spouses for support but women have wider networks of support and “a greater number of emotionally intimate relationships than men”, helping them cope when there is death or separation.

In the light of the findings, Relationships Australia asked whether our nation was facing a “loneliness epidemic”.

This suggestion would come as no surprise to our Wesley Lifeline Sydney & Sutherland volunteers who answer almost 40,000 calls a year from many people experiencing loneliness and isolation. Loneliness can also be experienced by seniors, children and young people who have been separated from their birth family through no fault of their own, among people experiencing homelessness, or a single mother caring for children on her own, and even within marriages.

That is why the theme of our Wesley LifeForce services “you are not alone” resonates across all we do at Wesley Mission as our staff and volunteers come alongside those who are suffering by offering compassionate care and understanding.

William Barclay, the Scottish writer, addressed the fact that our circumstances do not give simple answers to this issue. On the matter of joy, he wrote: “Joy has nothing to do with material things, or with a person’s outward circumstance … a person living in the lap of luxury can be wretched, and a person in the depths of poverty can overflow with joy.”

Joyce Huggett, writing in a pastoral context, concluded: “Loneliness is the anxiety that you do not matter at all.”

At Wesley Mission we believe that “every life matters.” Our ministry and service of Word and deed is relational, founded in the knowledge that God’s love expressed in compassionate care can bring a deep measure of healing and peace, unconditional acceptance and love and a very real experience that “you are not alone.”