How to help patients struggling with loneliness

Solving loneliness is not something that an individual can achieve alone. First and foremost, we need high-quality research to identify strategies that work to alleviate loneliness. This is the conclusion of countless academic reviews and meta-analyses, and a recent Australian Loneliness Thought Leadership Roundtable Report.

Biological factors (e.g, genetics, health status, gender), social factors (e.g., employment, economic systems) and community (e.g, family and friends) all contribute to people’s feelings of isolation from others, so solutions are likely to require individualised interventions at all these levels.

Lonely people can help themselves

Ending Loneliness Together provides a valuable resource for individuals, to help them feel less lonely. Twelve things individuals can do if they feel lonely are:

  1. Shift focus from thoughts of oneself to other people, topics of conversation or activities.
  2. Avoid comparing oneself to others
  3. Accept changes in relationships as natural consequences of personal growth
  4. Accept some discomfort in social situations as the cost of making and maintaining friendships
  5. Engage meaningfully with others by giving them full attention
  6. Don’t avoid small talk. Initial trivial conversations can lead to deeper and more fulfilling discussions
  7. Use people’s names, and offer one’s own, to help feel more connected
  8. Spend time offline to foster real-world relationships 
  9. Initiate contact and conversations with others
  10. Offer help and support to others to reap the personal benefits of being kind
  11. Join in with social opportunities like volunteering, sports clubs, professional societies or community activities
  12. Keep in touch with friends, even if it’s been a long time since last contact.

The Ending Loneliness Directory, launched in March 2023, is a searchable national database of more than 1,000 organisations, groups and services who provide opportunities for connection and support for people experiencing loneliness.

Social prescribing

Social determinants of health are responsible for roughly half of health inequity, and loneliness has been attributed to the dissolution of meaningful relationships in contemporary society. This suggests that social prescribing — referral of patients by health professionals to non-clinical, often local, services — may be particularly valuable in addressing loneliness.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Consumers Health Forum of Australia have already described what’s needed, in a general sense, for implementation of social prescribing in our country. As far as social prescribing for loneliness is concerned, there is only limited research to guide practice, and none that relates specifically to males. 

Effective interventions for loneliness include meditation and mindfulness, social cognitive training, and social support, with those that address maladaptive social cognition seemingly the most effective

Social prescribing to address loneliness is viewed by individuals and organisations as useful and necessary for addressing the problem. Many people who have participated in social prescribing programs for loneliness report feeling less lonely, and improvements in wellbeing as a consequence; however, some people express disinterest in available opportunities to reduce loneliness. These observations demonstrate the promise of social prescribing to address loneliness, but also the need to tailor interventions to individuals.

Lessons from Men’s Sheds

Social isolation might not always be the cause of loneliness, but helping lonely people to increase their social connections seems fundamental to helping them overcome the distress of feeling isolated. Helping lonely people to form meaningful connections with others can distract them from their distress as they increase their social activity, which can help with the establishment of meaningful relationships. 

Men’s Sheds are effective antidotes for loneliness in men after retirement from the workforce. By creating a sense of belonging, ‘shedders’ both provide and receive meaningful personal support. By building a community that is responsive to individuals’ needs, Men’s Sheds provide a template for solving the problem of loneliness in men.

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