22. December 2020

What does it do to us?

What does it do to us?

Now, in the difficult times of the coronavirus pandemic, we are facing up to a problem that has been ignored for a long time: loneliness. Almost 50 million people in Europe don’t meet friends or relatives at all throughout the year. They live in total isolation. The Red Cross talks of a “hidden epidemic” of loneliness and isolation. The EU-wide European Social Survey carried out in 2019 showed that seven percent of Europeans often feel lonely.

According to one study, isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and strokes by 32 percent. In addition to this, loneliness and isolation are associated with stress, depression and suicidal ideation.

Manfred Spitzer’s book “Loneliness, the Unrecognised Disease”, published in 2018, came as a bit of a shock to some. Manfred Spitzer, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Ulm, claims that loneliness is the “number one cause of death”. You might think that’s exaggerated, but it’s not without foundation.

The problem is getting worse

Due to increased isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the phenomenon is affecting an increasing number of people. There are widespread bans on contact, in-person meetings are restricted to a maximum of two households, and people are being asked (or obliged) not to take holidays or visit relatives. We can’t meet friends in restaurants, bars or pubs, and many other businesses, such as gyms, saunas, cinemas, theatres, amusement parks, beauty salons and massage practices, are still closed. In other words, any type of social hub where people could meet isn’t allowed to open its doors.

The role of hairdresser-come-psychologist has taken on a whole new importance, because hairdressing salons have been allowed to stay open.  In addition, winter has arrived, which is a well-known cause of depression in many people. And unfortunately there is little hope that COVID-19 will simply disappear in the foreseeable future.

One more thing: elderly people have a right to receive visits and have contact with others, even in nursing homes. The situation that care home residents and their relatives endured during the first wave of the coronavirus is not one they wish to repeat any time soon.

Die Welt recently ran a story with the headline: “The impending problem of loneliness at Christmas“. There is no doubt that the pandemic is affecting us collectively. We feel like we are living in a very alienated society. One reason for this: according to the Federal Office for Statistics, the number of single-person households has increased by 46 percent since 1991.

Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness

Above all else, people need other people to stay healthy. Unfortunately, social isolation continues to grow. In 2017, a survey found that more than nine million Britons often or always feel lonely, and that many people in the UK over the age of 60 spend every day alone with no social interaction.

The world’s first Minister for Loneliness

The Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, responded to the survey by appointing the world’s first Minister for Loneliness in 2018. Tracey Crouch was appointed as the first Minister for Loneliness, and the young German politician Diana Kinnert of the CDU helped to set up the anti-loneliness ministry.

She is fighting to ensure that Germany also starts to focus on rescuing people from their loneliness. Prime Minister May spoke of the “sad reality of modern life” that affects millions of people.

A survey of over 46,000 people from 237 countries published in April 2020 by BBC Radio 4 found that people in individualistic societies are most likely to be lonely. The current Minister for Loneliness in the UK is Baroness Diana Barran.

Loneliness: a global epidemic

A glance across the pond shows that Europe is not alone: ​​a recent study by the polling institute Cigna and Ipsos MORI found that loneliness in the USA has reached “epidemic proportions”. Almost half of respondents said that they “sometimes or always” felt lonely or excluded. And the surprising thing? Young people feel lonelier than older people. What could be the reason for this?

Many experts believe that loneliness has become a problem in most western, individualistic countries because of the global trend towards single-person households. And yet we find it astonishing that younger generations feel lonelier than middle-aged generations, as the Cigna study has shown.

According to the study, 18-to-22 year-olds feel the most lonely, but 23-to-37 year-olds also feel lonelier than 52-to-71 year-olds. However, elderly people play a larger role in the statistics, even if younger people feel lonelier. These results coincide with figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

Do young people feel lonelier that the elderly?

We have to ask ourselves why there is an increasing number of single people in the Western world. The reason probably lies in our rapidly changing society. People constantly want more, higher, faster, further. Taking responsibility for others is no longer in vogue.

But this is exactly what relationships are all about. An increasing number of people, especially young people, seem to be shying away from responsibility. So they’d rather be lonely? It’s not that simple.

Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote last year that the most common clinical picture he experienced as a doctor was neither heart disease nor diabetes: “It was loneliness.” Vivek Murthy headed the US Public Health Service under President Obama.

A meta-study of 148 studies from the USA, Europe, Asia and Australia has now shown that lonely people die earlier. The study was based on various parameters such as social isolation, divorce rates, loneliness and being single.

Focusing on social media instead of real contacts is also exacerbating the problem. Here’s what happens: when the feeling of loneliness becomes permanent, experts and doctors talk of isolation. This is a preliminary stage to depression.

We won’t discuss the consequences of depression here, as they are well known. By the way, since the 1980s Japan has had a word for the death of lonely old people: kodokushi. Kodokushi, literally translated as “lonely death” or “lonely dying”, describes the death of isolated people whose deaths often go unnoticed for a long time.

In another blog article, we will delve deeper into the state of loneliness in Germany, as an increasing number of Germans are also suffering from loneliness. We also want to clarify the question of whether loneliness affects poorer people more than wealthy people. Loneliness is often associated with a certain stigma in Germany, which is why very few people admit that they are lonely or talk about the issue. We want to find out how we can remove this stigma.

Keep yourselves safe and sound, especially now it’s getting dark very early.

Sources: euronews.com, Spiegel und Focus.de