[Taps mic] This thing on?
Just how far would you go to connect with other people? This is Alanis Morissette’s ‘Hand In My
Pocket’ and I’m sorry for what’s about to happen. Singing karaoke to a roomful of
strangers, in an outback town, sober, may seem extreme but for this story I’ve
gotten way out of my comfort zone. I’ve cuddled complete strangers, accosted
locals in the outback and tried to make friends with people I found on a website.
All of these to try and understand what experts have called our next big public
health crisis. So what have I learned? Well, loneliness kills. You can die. It’s just as risky as physical inactivity smoking, alcohol or obesity. We can call
it a health crisis but let’s call it a loneliness crisis. Half of us feel lonely at least one day a week and one in four Australians feel lonely most of the time.
Even worse 1.5 million people have been feeling lonely for a decade or more. I
know what you’re thinking in a world where we’re more connected than ever
why are so many people struggling with loneliness? Well, it turns out that the
type of people who suffer from loneliness might surprise you. I don’t think it’s surprising at all. I’ve gone to music events on my own, I’ve
gone to films on my own just to see who I can strike up a conversation with. I do
have quite an intense profession working construction. I’ve got lots of projects
on the go constantly and it can be difficult to make plans outside of work
hours. Gemma is young, smart and successful and she’s lived and worked all around the world. I think with social media for
example Facebook it helps me to feel connected but I think within a city
people need to go beyond those apps. I find that if you rely on your work
connections often it doesn’t eventuate into close friendships because they
already have their own social circles. You don’t often think about how solid
your friendships are in that respect. Professor Adrian Franklin is someone
who does think about that, a lot, in fact he’s made career out of it
– A lot of people think loneliness is not having lots of people in your life but actually
loneliness is when people lack high-quality meaningful or strong
relationships and also whether they’ve lost a sense of belonging to something.
It could be their family it could be a workplace. Are there common triggers for
loneliness in people’s lives? The 25-44 year old Australians we found that these were actually the most lonely groups of all why is that? Well, they are
in and out of jobs constantly they’re having to work very, very hard to pay for
their very expensive Australian house with, the killer one which is high rates
of separation and divorce that’s why they are the most lonely. They’re more
lonely than the retired they’re more lonely than the very old. It turns out there are lots of women like Emma in Canberra trying to make meaningful
connections and they’re finding each other via a website called MeetUp.
– MeetUp is like a dating app but for friends These girls are pretty open about why
they’re going online to find friends. I has some friends from Sydney say you’re a little bit lonely in Canberra, you don’t have that many friends try MeetUp and see how you go. I went on Google and asked Google how to make friends in Canberra I’m just searching for work so I don’t have
a friends for work yet for me it wasn’t actually difficult I’m used to Tinder dating, I think
– So from tinder to MeetUp it’s pretty easy. There are times where I still experience
loneliness in Canberra but I think the more distractions you have in life the
less time you have to feel lonely so things like moving to a new place,
working a lot and relying on social media is making us lonely but the woman
I’m about to meet says the connection we’re missing isn’t just social it’s
also physical. Every day you are touch deprived is another day on your back you know, you become more shy and more distant from other people.
– Jasmina is a professional cuddler which is the thing that until today I had no idea existed.
– The cuddle party is very interesting thing. It’s completely platonic and that
is not a kind of hook up party it is just to learn and explore touch of other
person. Jasmina says she gets clients of all ages and backgrounds coming to a cuddle party. They can be people working for government, they can
be musicians, can be teachers police force. How many of your clients would you say
are quite lonely? I would say all of them. You just suddenly you sit back and you
reflect on your life and you think well I used to be happier at another time as
someone who is a father and then all of a sudden they grow up you know and
suddenly like you’re not getting cuddles I’ve been kind of torturing myself by
isolating myself, not giving myself what I need and I need need what these guys
are having. So in case you’re wondering there are rules
at a cuddle party, one of which stood out. So I noticed that rule number eight is
relax and don’t worry if you get turned on can you explain this rule to me it’s
normal that those things are happening if they were not I would be worried
actually so if it happens the story is we justdon’t act on it you know and it will go. Well with that sorted I was ready to give it a try. Okay I’m coming. I have to admit at the start it was
this awkward as I imagined it would be pretty soon I was getting into it a lot.
– I think in general life often I am terrified and quite anxious but there is
a reassuring aspect to being touched by people and to having people respond to
your touch. Look I might not make cuddle parties a regular part of my weekend but I did make a few friends. Thanks guys, bye. So far, Jasmina and the cuddlers, Gemma
and the MeetUp girls they’re all very proactive about staving off loneliness
but what about when loneliness becomes so crippling you can’t even leave the
house I didn’t speak to anyone for over a week
at one stage. I wasn’t leaving the house at all though I got to the point where I
was nearly talking to myself. For two years the only time Alan would leave the
house was to buy groceries and check the mail but his life wasn’t always like
this. When his grandpa fell sick a few years ago, Alan moved states leaving his son, job and friends behind to become a live-in carer.
-He passed away in his sleep. I was devastated just like he was like the
main person in my family that really cared and that’s why I came across the
country to help look after him. – So at that point who did you have to look out for you
– Pretty much myself I thought I’ve got big shoulders up taking a lot over
my life my time so and I can handle this but I just couldn’t do you don’t want to
be seen as being a softy. Australian men in our survey we asked
them what did they do when they became seriously lonely and we gave them a list
of things. Go to see your GP, talk to your family, there was about 10 items on the
list. Almost no Australian man ticked any of them. Australian women ticked most of
them. When people were seriously lonely it was like they were locked out of
their own lives they felt that they’ve become invisible
no one saw them anymore and they start to withdraw they start to get depressed
and they start to become sick. I got, really weak suffered bad headaches, I
went for about three days without no sleep. They diagnosed me with anxiety and depression.
– So people say that if you’re feeling lonely or isolated that
you’ve got to just get out and go and meet people?
– It doesn’t work like that, doesn’t work like that at all. They hear that so often they get so fed up with
hearing it because it’s much deeper and more complicated than that it’s not as
easy just to go out and meet new people and sit down and talk to people you just
don’t I just didn’t feel like doing anything. Alan’s story is pretty heartbreaking and all the solutions I’ve looked at so
far cuddle parties or online friend finders won’t really work with someone
who can’t even leave the house. So is there something that could hello. Laura Rowland runs friend line a national volunteer run
hotline for lonely people looking for someone, anyone to talk to
we’re not counseling people we’re not giving advice we’re not trained
psychologists, although some people have a background in psychology and
counseling we’re literally just a conversation so kind of think about it
as have a cuppa and a chat. Laura has arranged for me to talk to one of their regular callers. Hi David it’s Laura here how’re you going? Tell me a little bit
about yourself? Okay now I live in St Kilda. David is a computer programmer but
lately his health has made working impossible. Also he has Asperger’s which
he says means it’s hard for him to make and keep friends. What’s the the most
kind of lonely that you have felt? Well, you know, very lonely. Especially around holiday time. 1 in 4 Australians are lonely so somebody
we know. Over 70% of people said it’s difficult to admit to being lonely so we
know there’s a huge stigma around it as well. FriendLine gets dozens of calls a
night from all around the country and whilst the vast majority of Australians
live in major cities Laura says about half of their calls are from regional
areas. So I’ve come to Outback New South Wales to find out why so many people here
are lonely. There’s 18,000 people living in Broken Hill which is about 250 times
less than Melbourne or Sydney. So does living in a smaller community make us
feel closer and therefore less lonely? It’s a great community yeah I guess
because it’s so small everybody knows everybody.
– Everyone seems to know everyone but I feel like if you’re on the outside then you can be quite lonely.
– Just so isolated in a lot of areas you haven’t got a licence or yeah way of getting around
around you of course. There’s a few lonely people. there’s a lot of people who
really like that there I’m sort of lonely myself. I was by myself for about
18 or so months and was extremely lonely. It’s a situation Allen knows all too
well Broken Hill is his adopted hometown.
– Well they say in a small town everyone knows each other then everyone helps each
other that’s wrong. I do think it is easier for people to slip through the cracks in smaller towns. A few years ago Jenna realised that loneliness was driving people and Broken Hill to utter desperation. They were presenting to the
hospital especially after hours and weekends.
That’s a really sad thing to think that When people are lonely they’re
presenting to a hospital emergency room. When I was really lonely I’d go to the
hospital and I would stay there for six weeks and then come home and it’s just
your head is filled with so much stuff that you have to release it. After divorcing his partner Jason had a
breakdown. He moved to Broken Hill for a fresh start but found himself completely
alone. When I came here to Broken Hill I was diagnosed with bipolar. A good 10-11 years I’ve felt that I’ve had nothing. What saved Jason from complete
isolation was meeting Alan. He was sort of a the person who’s withdrawn too but
he’s come out of his shell quite a fair bit since he’s been at this program it’s
amazing how much people of people have come out of their shells. They met at a group called connections setup specifically for lonely people in town Tt’s a free program run by Mission
Australia and New South Wales Health it gets people out of the house and
interacting with the world So I go to pretty much every connections
group that’s running. I’d say me anxieties a lot better than what it was
before I went to Connections. Loneliness can be linked to the early onset of
mental health issues. I believe addressing loneliness is an early intervention strategy into reducing mental health in Australia. We do need to look after the individual. You need to help them but there’s something that I
think governments should be doing. We’re not doing anywhere near as much as some
countries Britain well it’s got six million people who have got loneliness as a
problem they’ve now got a minister with a minister’s portfolio.
– A minister for loneliness would be fantastic I think there has to be a top-down as well
as a bottom-up approach as well so national leadership. Until that national leadership arrives
Jenna and her team are making pretty big strides. The head of mental health at the
local hospital says that some Connections clients have reduced their
time at the hospital by 65 percent in just six months. So it’s not enough to
prove that it cures loneliness but I think it does show that when people are
engaged in meaningful activity and connections with other people that it is
really good for their own mental health We do activities such as going out for
lunch, going to art galleries, art lessons poetry nights, karaoke. A few months ago getting up and singing in front of people would have been unimaginable for Alan. – Have you sung karaoke before?
– Oh no no I’m a bit nervous about the karaoke but I think I’ll get up and give
it a go. I don’t really know yourself now I’ve changed radically, drastically.
– I smile a lot more I talk a lot more. Being here with these guys to me these guys are family and and I love that about
them. Which brings us back to this moment. I’m
broke but I’m happy, I’m poor but I’m kind I’m short but I’m healthy yeah.
If this journey has taught me anything it’s that turning this loneliness crisis
around is going to take a lot of work as individuals, as communities and as a
country it’s work we have to do.