Mental health advocates say action, not compassion, is essential to addressing loneliness for Australians

Loneliness is on the rise in Australia and is leading mental health advocates to ask, what can people do about it?

Surveys have found that more than 50 percent of people report feeling more lonely since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with youth or vulnerable groups particularly at risk.

Phil McAuliffe established himself as The Loneliness Guy in 2018 and The Loneliness Guy in 2020 after going through his own bout of loneliness while working as an Australian government diplomat in Korea.

Seven years ago, just before his 40th birthday, McAuliffe realized he was not living his authentic life, and that coming out alone would also mean coming out as gay to his family, including his now ex-wife.

“Something was missing and I didn’t understand what it was, but then how could I talk to someone when… I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to?” He said.

A man with gray hair and a beard is smiling at the camera
Phil McAuliffe is now The Loneliness Guy, helping people through their experiences of loneliness.(Supplied: Phil McAuliffe and smb_creative)

Nobody to call

Mr. McAuliffe had not been in touch with his university friends, and as everyone became so busy with work, family, relationships, and children, he didn’t feel he could really pick up the phone.

He said, “I said to my ex… I think I might be lonely. And she said, ‘I’ve been wondering about it.'”

When he decided to call his employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) hotline from his office in Korea, he realized Australia needed to reform how it understood, dealt with and accepted loneliness.

“I’ve since realized that compassion feels like we’re doing something about loneliness in an understandable way,” he said.

“But it actually puts a distance between the person who says they are lonely, and the person who receives that news.”

A woman with auburn hair and wide-rimmed glasses smiles at the camera
Simone Amohanga has lived alone for 17 years but says she is not alone.(Supplied: Simone Amohanga)

Now happily married with two children and serving as a guest speaker and trainer for diplomats and LGBTQIA+ people, Mr. McAuliffe has left the Diplomatic Service and is working to teach people how to identify and talk about loneliness.

In regional Victoria, the city of Greater Bendigo included social connection and reduced loneliness, as well as community involvement and belonging, as factors in its five-year healthy living strategy.

As part of the strategy, the Social Prescribing Project is being offered in partnership with the Murray Primary Health Network and local providers.

Bendigo-based comedian and commentator Simon Amuhanga told ABC Central Victoria Breakfast presenter Rebecca Norman that strategies are needed to overcome loneliness in Australia.

“I’ve lived on my own, which is different from loneliness, for 17 years and don’t suffer much from loneliness, but I think it has more to do with it,” said Ms. Amuhanga.

“Loneliness to me means not being heard or understood.”

Loneliness versus social isolation

The AIHW defines social isolation as a state of not having much contact with others, while loneliness, according to a 1982 study by academics Letitia Ann Peplau and Daniel Perlman, describes the negative feelings someone has about a less than desired level of social contact.

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