Loneliness and the lockdown: measuring the impact of being alone

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Swinburne researchers are looking at what happens to our health and our lives when we are cut off from face-to-face communication with the people we love. Millicent Spencer reports.

The impact of the lockdown has leading researchers asking if loneliness will affect our relationships, health and wellbeing.

People who feel lonely for an extended time could be more likely to suffer physical and mental health conditions, says Dr Robert Eres from Swinburne’s Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory.

Dr Robert Eres. Photo supplied.

Dr Eres is working alongside the Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute, who are conducting a world-wide survey on COVID-19 that aims to understand how social restrictions affect the way we live, work and function.

“Currently a lot of people are impacted by quarantine because of the coronavirus and what we don’t really know is the impact and type of impact this has on our physical and mental health,” Dr Eres said.

Self-isolation means some people may not be maintaining any connections at all while others are – but it’s not about the quantity, he said.

“It’s about the quality of connection and because we are isolating, we might not be maintaining this quality because people aren’t face to face,” he said.

University student Antonietta Di Cosmo said that even though she lives with four people she has experienced feelings of loneliness during this time.

Antonietta Di Cosmo. Photo suppied.

Being from an Italian family, Easter this year was not the same, she said.

“It was the first time in 19 years that I haven’t seen my Zio (uncle) and Zia (aunty),” she said.

However, being isolated at home has been a nice way to connect with my immediate family to strength our relationships, she said.

Dr Eres said people may still experience loneliness even if when they are around people.

“Reach out in any capacity you can,” he said.

Skype someone, visit a neighbour, perform an act of kindness, express greater gratitude towards people or let someone know you care, Dr Eres said.

“While we might not feel as motivated to maintain the connection, encourage people to try.”

When asked if technology can replace face-to-face contact and so improve loneliness, Dr Eres said that while being on technology might be useful, digital tools won’t replace physical connections.

“Right now, I think a lot of people are really missing the face-to-face interpersonal interactions they have with people,” he said.

“There’s almost a view that oh you are always on your phone, so you’re always connected to people’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a quality connection.

“For some people it might be the case that being on their phone is a useful way to connect, but for others it might be more of a distraction.”

University student Zoë Fisher said that she has experienced loneliness and seeing people online has become more taunting than comforting.

Zoe Fisher. Photo supplied.

Online interactions are better than nothing, but they aren’t the same as being around the people who are supportive in certain situations, Ms Fisher said.

It is normal for everyone to experience some form of loneliness during their lifetime, Dr Eres said. Loneliness can include withdrawal from others, anxiety and/or depression.

The survey is administered in three parts and participants can decide if they participate in all three parts.

The first asks questions about demographics, relationships, mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing and any impact COVID-19 has had on work, health and/or communication with others. The survey takes about 30 minutes and the questions include a mixture of multiple choice, drop down menus and scale ratings.

For more information on the research project or to begin the survey click here