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Posted at: Oct 12, 2019, 2:00 AM; last updated: Oct 12, 2019, 2:00 AM (IST)

Guard against loneliness

With nearly 56 million Indians suffering from depression, the epidemic of loneliness is growing, highlighting an acute need for effective social support systems

Dr Prakriti Poddar

In a world of 24/7 connectivity, thousands of social media friends and followers with an ability to connect at the click of a finger, ‘loneliness’ would seem like a misplaced word! However, the loneliness epidemic is real and it is consuming the entire world. The British government last year appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address the issue of isolation and loneliness among a large section of population. A study estimated that more than nine million Britishers often or always felt lonely. Similar demands for government intervention have been raised in Australia.

With the breakdown of traditional family system, increasing migration, growing disconnect and hectic city lives that leave little time for socialising or leisure, there is a growing loneliness epidemic creeping in Indian cities as well. Social media has further compounded the problem by making people always ready to connect virtually but diminishing the importance of person-to-person connections. Around 56 million Indians are estimated to be suffering from depression. Over 2 lakhs are estimated to commit suicide annually. Loneliness is increasingly emerging as a disease of urban modern life.

How it affects mental health

Samaira (name change) 25, moved to Mumbai two years back to start a professional life, leaving behind her family and close friends in north India. She has vibrant professional links now but no real connection with anyone in Mumbai. Her work keeps her busy through the day, but loneliness creeps up as she returns home, making her fatigued and causing bouts of mood blues. Contrary to popular belief, loneliness is not something that impacts only the elderly. A study conducted by health insurance provider Cigna, US, found that millennials and generation Z were in fact lonelier than older generations. In India, a 2017 study by Agewell Foundation across 300 districts found that a whopping 47.49 per cent of elderly people suffer from loneliness. 

While we do not have a similar data for young Indians, trends in this category are expected to be similar. Understandably, the situation is more pronounced in urban centres and metros where a large number of people live alone, away from the comfort of family and kin. A nationwide survey conducted by NIMHANS in 2016 estimated that around 13.7 per cent of India’s population suffered from different mental illnesses, with around 10.6 per cent of them requiring immediate attention. The study concluded that residents from urban metros, where isolation and stress are more pronounced, had greater prevalence across different mental disorders. 

The hazards of isolated living 

Long-term loneliness or lack of people-to-people connection is not just an emotional and psychological drain, it also has harmful effects on physical health. Deficiencies in social relationships are associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke. Loneliness is also associated with increased incidence of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and suicidal tendency. It also increases risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes. People who are lonely are also at higher risk of early death as compared to people with greater social connections. 

In fact, a 2017 study found that social isolation, loneliness, or living alone boosted the chance of premature death. At the same time, poor coping mechanisms and addictions such as smoking and compulsive behavior are found to be more common among lonely people. Among elderly people, loneliness is also associated with increased cognitive decline and worsening of health. 

Family support and other bonds

There is no better therapy than the comfort of family. It is important, therefore, to maintain close ties of kinship not just with your close family members but also with the extended ones. With shrinking family sizes and breakdown of the joint family system that provided a much-needed social cushion, loneliness is often also found among children and adolescents now. Increasing migration and geographical dislocation also results in a loss of identity and comfort of the roots or the community. 

While it is difficult to reverse the social evolution, various measures at different levels can help individuals better cope with being ‘alone’ and find ways to strike real friendships. Here is what must be done:

Spend time and talk to kids: In the pursuit of raising super-achieving children, many parents tend to lose out on cultivating a human connection with their kids. So, the kids spend the entire day running from school to various tuition or hobby classes or even both. At the end of the day, there is little time left to have a real conversation with the child. It is important to ensure that you have a close, not just parental but friendly connection, with your child to allow him/her talk to you with ease. Also encourage kids to develop close bonds with extended family members on whom they can fall back upon in time of need.

Guard against technologically-induced loneliness: Even if you are lonely, it is advisable to not seek excessive comfort in digital devices; rather step out of the house, join a community or cultural organisation, volunteer for social service, pursue a passion and in the process find new friends who share your wavelength. 

Support groups at workplaces: Not only must workplaces strive to offer better work-life balance to employees, they must also institute regular availability of a counsellor to help people cope with displacement and isolation.

— The writer is director, Poddar Wellness Ltd and managing trustee, Poddar Foundation, Mumbai.

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