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Connection Lost (and the mission to re-find community)
The case to build new pathways into community participation
Have you ever experienced a gap between the connections you need and the connections you have?
It’s a negative feeling that can bring with it a sense of distress or anxiety.
It also has a name. Loneliness.
Loneliness is something that everyone feels at different points in their lives. Not that you would necessarily know it.
“Loneliness, unfortunately, carries stigma with it. People who feel lonely often are ashamed to admit it. They think it’s equivalent to admitting that they are not likable or that they’re socially insufficient in some way.”
This quote is from Dr Vivek Murthy who wrote Together: Loneliness, Health and What Happens When We Find Connection. Murthy’s book is recommended reading and makes a strong case for human’s evolutionary need for connection and the potential health benefits of being better connected.
Loneliness in Australia
Loneliness is not just an issue in the United States. A national survey of Australians in 2018 suggested that:
1 in 4 Australians feel lonely at least 3 days a week
55% of people feel they lack companionship sometimes
1 in 4 people also report feelings of social interaction anxiety
Higher levels of loneliness are associated with poorer psychological wellbeing and poorer quality of life.
And that was before COVID. Initial research indicates that 1 in 2 Australians are feeling more lonely since COVID. This is a major issue given the widespread evidence that loneliness is associated with poor health outcomes including increasing the risk of early death by 26%.
Community involvement and loneliness
One potential antidote to loneliness is community involvement. Community involvment can mean a wide range of activities such as sporting clubs, hobby groups, supporting local businesses, a book club, taking part in weekend markets, volunteering, a community garden, neighbourhood action groups or even just a walking group.
The bad news is that ABS statistics report that involvement in community groups is declining in Australia (see graph below).
This reduction in community group involvement is obviously not good news for loneliness.
Arresting the trend
Some people experiencing feelings of loneliness will end up seeing their local GP. Given the stigma about loneliness, they might present with some other type of symptom - general anxiety, tiredness or listlessness - and it can be a tricky task for a GP to identify the underlying cause.
If the GP and patient can identify loneliness, this is where social prescribing can play a role - the practice of health professionals referring people to community activities.
Of course for many people it is not necessary for a health professional to help them contemplate community participation. They might already have strong connections or easy access to appropriate groups and activities. For others however, there might be higher barriers. There might be problems of awareness or access, or simply a lack of options that are a good match for the person and their interests.
For example, at least in the UK experience, social prescribing is centred around referring people to more formalised forms of charitable involvmement - namely, community services and volunteering opportunities. While this is worthy and great for many people, it does not necessarily solve the underlying problem of human connection.
This article by the Ending Loneliness Together movement makes this point:
“… the solution isn’t as simple as connecting lonely people with other people; rather, it involves the establishment of meaningful connections. Many social initiatives rely heavily on connecting lonely people with strangers and a rotating cast of volunteers. Most of these programs designed to address loneliness are being implemented without testing their effectiveness.”
This suggests that a narrow model of social prescribing - of connecting patients via link workers to traditional charitable or volunteering groups - is not necessarily the most effective model for everyone.
Making meaningful connections via community
The challenge is thus how to make meaningful community connections.
This is no small challenge when people report feeling increasingly rushed and short of time. Or that so much stigma exists around people sharing feelings of loneliness. Or that it is difficult to seek out connection in the midst of experiencing feelings of loneliness, anxiety, disconnection or distress.
As the team at Togather have been wrestling with this challenge, we have identified a number of things that might allow us to design a more innovative approach that helps people overcome barriers and successfully engage in community participation.
1. Normalise and Informalise
The stigma of loneliness is a big handbrake which prevents people from even contemplating avenues to community involvement. Successfully engaging people will rely on normalising actions that connect people with others. Framing community participation around the potential enjoyment and benefits might be a more promising approach than seeking to ‘cure’ the ill of loneliness.
Equally, not all community participation requires a formalised engagement with a volunteer or charitable organisation. This formality might be offputting to people and raise the barrier to involvment. There are many more informal, people-powered activities that are more about catching up with other locals - such as a local walking group or a book club or an initiative like Men’s Shed.
2. Make Accessible
Finding ways to get involved in the community can also be a daunting task. There are many disparate sources of community activity ranging from local council calendars, local newsletters and noticeboards, Facebook groups, Instagram, local librarys, MeetUp events, community directory websites (rarely updated) and many, many more. It would make a big difference if there was a simpler, less daunting way to find different activities in one place.
3. No One Size
It is one thing for a naturally outgoing, extroverted person to get involved, but quite another for someone who happens to be more introverted. Likewise there’s a big difference between activities that might be more competitive than collaborative. Or require a lot or little fitness. Or that might be more suitable for different genders, or for people in different age groups or social circumstances. As mentioned above, some people might be suited to more philanthropic or volunteering activities, whereas others might be more interested in exploring nature or pursuing an interest or hobby.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to community participation which requires distinguishing between people’s different preferences, interests, personalities and capabilities.
4. Community is Local
While most research and commentary revolves around the term “community”, it might be more useful to use “local”. Because that’s where much of the potential for meaningful connection exists - with neighbours, residents, local shops and public areas. It represents a challenge because every locality has unique characteristics, residents, challenges and strengths. This means that any service or technology platform needs to balance universal elements while catering for local nuances. And it makes it crucial to form partnerships with local groups and organisations who have the lived experience in the community.
Connection, waiting to be found
The existing epidemic of loneliness in Australia, cruelly exacerbated by various lockdowns and restrictions brought on by COVID, means it has never been a more important time to explore new ways to help people make (or re-make) meaningful connections in their communities.
While it is a complex and sticky problem, the increasing levels of interest by academics, health professionals and charitable foundations suggest that there are partners willing and able to collaborate in innovative ways to help people boost their sense of connection and belonging.
N.B. The team at Togather are currently working on the research and design of a proof of concept to test ways to improve individual wellbeing through community participation. We plan to work in one NSW locality for starters, working closely with local residents, groups and health services. Get in touch if you’re interested in hearing more.