Edited by Jill Wright,
By the time the majority of the Psychology Melbourne team gets back from our short end-of-year holiday, most of us will have spent precious time with our families, some of whom live interstate or overseas.
Because of the particular work we do, we are more likely than most people to be aware of how lucky we are to have people in our lives who love and care for us.
As I was doing a little preparatory work this weekend, I came across a story from The Guardian in mid-December that brought home the reality that far too many people face: chronic loneliness that blights life and damages health.
The article points out, as research by psychologists and physicians has shown, that, "Loneliness has been linked to the development of a number of serious chronic health conditions, including depression, high blood pressure and dementia.
"We know that people who experience loneliness are more likely to smoke and drink too much, and less likely to exercise and adhere to a medication regime. Loneliness is therefore correlated with poor health, and causes some of the behaviours that can harm our mental and physical health."
It points to research that shows that in the UK, loneliness isn't just confined to older people who have lost friends and relatives. It also troubles more than a third of people between the ages of 18 and 34.
Similar research in Australia a couple of years ago revealed that as many as three out of 10 people, if not more, could be experiencing loneliness. That report included some surprising insights: parents with young children could be particularly susceptible, and young women on low incomes were the most likely victims - although men aged 24 to 44 were roughly twice as likely to be lonely than the average women.
According to a survey by Beyond Blue last month, Australian men begin to lose their social connections in their 30s. The research suggests only 40 per cent of 4.5 million Australian men aged between 30 and 65 are satisfied with the quality of their relationships, and one in four have few or no social connections.
The UK's Campaign to End Loneliness - which is the source for The Guardian story - is a great resource which with any luck will be extended to Australia. It suggests seven ways loneliness can be reduced. I've come up with a couple more.
The Campaign to End Loneliness site has quite a lot of resources, not all of which have been duplicated in Australia. Its efforts include assistance for people in the community to campaign to get their MPs involved, and that's definitely something we should be doing in this country.
In the meantime, there are local initiatives like Manningham Council's "Know Your Neighbour" activities.
Reaching out to the people who live nearby is one of the strategies mentioned in both articles to fight loneliness. Volunteering is another.
Sadly, people experiencing loneliness can struggle to find the confidence to reach out and cultivate new friendships. Our psychologists can help clients overcome that, with a number of evidence-based techniques and resources. An article at PsychCentral offers some useful ideas.
While social media like Facebook and Twitter are often criticised for offering little more than the illusion of social connection and are even thought in some cases to identify and isolate lonely people, I think that sites like MeetUp are a fantastic way to arrange and learn about opportunities to get to meet people with common interests.
Another story that I found interesting deals more with the mental health benefits of nature, but it highlights the benefits of activities like shared walks in nature.
I noticed another interesting resource in Melbourne: the Weekend Notes site. Among a constantly growing list of activities it mentions is the free walks program offered by the Heart Foundation and Stonnington Council.