Surveys in the UK point to an epidemic of loneliness among young people. (Photo: Pixabay)

Does Australia need a Minister for Loneliness?

Britain is the only country in the world with a Minister for Loneliness – and one Victorian MP is pushing for Australia to follow suit.

Fiona Patten of the Reason Party met Tracy Crouch, who in a world first was appointed the Minister for Loneliness in 2017, on a recent visit to Britain.

Ms Patten is campaigning to have a similar ministry set up in Victoria, where she is a member of the Legislative Council. She points to evolving societal norms – such as changing jobs and moving for work more often – as examples of why a sense of community may be diminishing for many people.

“As we become more connected in a technical way, we seem to become more disconnected in other ways,” Ms Patten said.

This link between loneliness and technology is strong, according to a recent national survey in the UK carried out by BBC4. It found that 40 per cent of people aged between 16-24 say they feel lonely often or very often. This compares to 29 percent of 65-74 year olds and 27 per cent of those aged above 75.

Ms Patten said there was an economic benefit in addressing the issue, not just a moral one, citing the impact on the health system.

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“For those that have chronic loneliness, it has the same health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” she said.

“The impact on our health system is substantial.”

These claims are backed by numerous research papers, including one by the British-based not-for-profit organisation Social Finance entitled Investing to Tackle Loneliness, published in 2015.

It found that compared to older people who are never lonely, older people who do experience loneliness are:

  • Eight times more likely to visit their GP
  • Six times more likely to visit Accident & Emergency
  • Five times more likely to enter local authority-funded residential care
  • Four times more likely to suffer depression
  • Nine times more likely to develop dementia in the following 15 years

It also found that two thirds of lonely people are more likely to be physically inactive, which in turn increases the risk of conditions such as diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease.

Ms Patten said it was necessary to re-examine the way suburbs are designed, to include better access to public transport, community spaces and designing homes to be less secluded.

Victorian Reason Party MP Fiona Patten. (Photo: Fiona Patten, Facebook)

She also suggested doctors could be encouraged to offer “social prescription” – recommending that people join a social club or group. She said volunteering was one of the best remedies for loneliness.

“By inserting loneliness [awareness] into every portfolio, every minister must consider how they’re affecting social isolation in how they build their infrastructure, how they look at their transport systems, how they look at their health system,” she said.

The creation of a Minister for Loneliness in Britain was in part a legacy of Jo Cox, an MP who had spoken publicly about her personal battles with loneliness. Ms Cox was shot and stabbed to death in 2016.

Former British prime minister Theresa May appointed Ms Crouch to the position in January 2018, following a report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness which found that more than 9 million people in Britain often or always feel lonely.