Loneliness and Villages
14 March 2019 at 9:00 am
Being a part of the It Takes A Village campaign has highlighted how important it is that we think about the village around not just our students, but each member of our community, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie, as he reflects on our increasing levels of loneliness or disconnectedness.
Over the past week, most of my time has been about the CCA campaign to highlight the work charities do to increase Year 12 completion rates in Australia.
This work has also focused on recognising the positive influence we can all exert as supporters and encouragers of young people’s aspirations.
The It Takes a Village – Education is Everyone’s Business campaign is grounded in research and knowledge that all students are part of a village, and the village around each student can lift them high above their immediate horizons to realise their biggest dreams.
The research to inform the campaign, involved a series of focus groups and a national survey of over 1,000 adults. All the research was conducted by Essential Media and mostly focused on adult relationships with young people and how these relationships can and do impact school achievement and retention.
There were many interesting findings that helped shape the campaign, but there was one statistic that really stood out for me.
Over a third of the adults surveyed said they had no contact with a school-aged young person.
This seemed a very high number to me, especially given that this was a representative sample of Australian adults and the research itself offered clear prompts about the many ways in which adults might interact with school-aged children, even if they have no school-aged children themselves.
- as extended family members – uncle, aunt, grandparent, etc
- within a broader social network – children of friends and colleagues, etc
- as a coach or supporter of a sporting team, local church group or youth club, etc
- within local arts, music or other creative activities, environmental or animal welfare groups, etc
- within the local community – neighbours, kids in local parks, students working in local shops, etc.
When I was challenged by colleagues to say why I found the result surprising or concerning, I suggested that it seemed at odds with the vast majority of people I know. I also wondered if the finding reflected a lack of connectedness between some people and the communities they live in?
The census data tells us that more than two million Australians live in single person households, or around one quarter of all households in Australia.
The number of people living alone has grown significantly in the last two decades. But contrary to what many might assume, living alone is more common among better educated young women where it appears to be a lifestyle choice. For men living alone the situation is less positive. They are more likely to have lower educational attainment and lower incomes.
It seems the fact that more of us are living alone might not be the reason we are more disconnected. Living alone is not necessarily a sign of loneliness, or an inability to have meaningful relationships, or a lack of connectedness within our communities.
Loneliness itself is also quite complex. Being alone does not mean you will feel lonely, and having lots of people around you does not mean that you will not be lonely.
In November last year the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University released the Loneliness Report, noting that:
- one in four of those surveyed (representative sample of 1,600 Australians) feel lonely
- many people, especially those who are younger, report anxiety about socialising
- 30 per cent of those surveyed don’t feel part of a group of friends
- people who are lonely have worse physical and mental health and are more likely to be depressed.
There is growing research arguing loneliness is emerging as a major public health issue resulting in increasing health costs.
Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-profits Andrew Leigh published an opinion piece on loneliness last year which highlighted the critical role of charities: “What can Australia do to tackle loneliness? In part, it’s up to you. If you know a friend, relative or neighbour who might be feeling isolated, perhaps today’s the day to pick up the phone or drop in to say g’day.
“But collective action matters too. Charities do invaluable work in assisting the homeless, new migrants, people who are recently bereaved, and those who are simply down on their luck….
“Together, government, charities and social activists can cooperate to make Australia a little less lonely, and a little more friendly.”
A relatively new group has formed to help tackle loneliness in Australia and many charities see working to reduce isolation and disconnection as a core part of their role within their communities.
It is likely that a whole range of issues are merging together in our contemporary lives – none of which on their own can explain our increasing levels of loneliness or disconnectedness, but when combined, they appear to make a compelling case.
More and more factors appear to be undermining our engagement and trust in each other: more people live alone, more people feel isolated, more people struggle with complex transitions in life, more anxiety and mental illness, more use of non-verbal and non-face-to-face interactions.
Being a part of the It Takes A Village campaign has highlighted how important it is that we think about the village around not just our students, but each member of our community, and how important it is that we lift each other up to realise our individual and collective potential.
Just as there are too many students slipping through the cracks into their own forms of isolation, there are clearly too many adults facing loneliness and disconnection.
Working to strengthen our villages; collectively caring about each other; lifting people up; providing hope and opportunity and connectedness; are all fundamental to the role of charities in Australia.
Given the changes in our community life, we should all do more to highlight this invaluable work and the positive benefits it provides individuals, communities and our nation.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.