People smoke because they are lonely

Loneliness is as unhealthy as stress or smoking

Loneliness is increasing around the world and is a major threat to mental and physical health, say experts' shortcomings in the care of mentally ill people in Austria. These are particularly affected.

Loneliness makes you sick in the long run and is apparently just as unhealthy as work stress or smoking. In particular, the mentally ill, the elderly and young people are increasingly affected by loneliness, warned G√ľnter Klug, President of pro mente Austria, on Wednesday at a press conference in Vienna. He located the reasons for this in the effects of the ever faster changing society.

The sharp increase in loneliness has been recognized by science in recent years as one of the main factors for endangering mental and physical health. A study in 78 countries over more than 50 years showed that loneliness is increasing worldwide and affecting more and more groups of people, said Klug. Depending on the intensity measured, between eight and 55 percent of the population feel lonely.

Chronic stress

"Basically, loneliness is not a bad thing. It is a warning signal that we lack social contacts," explained the expert. "The background to loneliness is chronic stress. This weakens the body's defenses, making it more susceptible to infections and cardiovascular diseases." Social disintegration poses a greater risk of premature death than obesity. Those who are socially isolated have three times the risk of dying in a given period of time.

Mentally ill people are particularly affected by loneliness, as they usually already have smaller social networks anyway. For illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia or addiction, loneliness is a key symptom. "Compared to patients with physical illnesses, the care of mentally ill people in Austria has improved in recent years, but there is still a lot of catching up to do," criticized pro-mente Vice-President Gernot Koren.

Court of Auditors criticizes supply

The Court of Auditors found numerous shortcomings in the care of mentally ill people. The planned law on new social assistance (formerly minimum income) contains positive and negative aspects for people with mental health problems. So that mental illnesses can be treated equally, there should be a right to psychotherapy on sick leave. "A lot could be cushioned by this," said Koren, "that is discrimination against people with mental illnesses". For "first aid for the soul" there is also a need for comprehensive and low-threshold offers.

In the UK, there has even been a separate Department for Loneliness since 2017, which runs multi-million dollar programs, the experts reported. There it was recognized that the (preventive) fight against loneliness is still cheaper than treating health problems due to a lack of social contacts. In Austria, however, the health effects of loneliness are still far too little perceived. There is a lack of figures on the phenomenon of loneliness in this country, stated Klug. "There isn't even good data on mental illness." If the results of studies from other western countries are transferred to Austria, one can conclude that loneliness has a similar potential as burnout to become a social issue.

Children: Only two hours of real contact

Research has shown that children and adolescents feel lonely on twice as many days as adults. According to Klug, the main reasons for the increase in loneliness are the increasing urbanization and mediatization of society. More and more time is being spent with new (social) media, "real" contacts are being neglected. Eight- to twelve-year-olds nowadays have two hours of real social contact every day, but spend around seven hours in front of a screen. "This affects the learning of compassion," explained Klug, "there is a clear connection between media use and empathy, but also between media consumption and depression". Because they appear to fare poorly when compared with the idealized portrayal of others, many young people withdraw more. Especially among the "Generation M" born from 2000 onwards, great differences can be seen through media use: They are evidently more confident, self-confident and also more self-indulgent and are referred to as the "look at me" generation. Due to the low level of education, pronounced superficiality and low emotional maturity, there is "unfortunately no reason," said Klug.

In order to prevent loneliness, prevention on an individual and societal level is necessary. People have to be kept in society. "The worst thing is the social and material disintegration," emphasized Koren. "Because poverty makes you sick and illness makes you poor." The annual pro mente conference this year has the motto "Mental health in times of social change" and will take place on Thursday, March 28th, in Graz.