February is often touted as the month of love. It’s a time when it sometimes seems hard to move for the Valentine’s Day cards and gifts or restaurant specials. Behind the commercialism is a message - to reach out and connect with our nearest and dearest and share our feelings. We may also hope that someone will reach out and connect with us.

Sadly, for too many people, the month is a time of heightened loneliness, where people can feel an even deeper sense of isolation when comparing themselves to people around them or to the often curated lives of social media.

When we think about loneliness, our minds often turn to being alone. Though, it often goes beyond this as choosing to spend time alone and loneliness are very different things. We can often be surrounded by people, yet feel deep loneliness. Disconnection from family, friends, colleagues and the broader community can heighten feelings of despair and seclusion.

The thing about being lonely, is that it is often well hidden and masked from the view of others. If left unaddressed, it can result in debilitating mental health and physical challenges and can lead to despair and in some cases, suicide.

Emerging research has put the spotlight on loneliness as a health and social challenge that must be addressed. A recent study by Swinburne University and the Australian Psychological Society found that one in five Australians rarely or never feel they have someone to turn to or talk to and over one-quarter felt a sense of loneliness for at least three days a week. This is very concerning.

We know that the strength and quality of people’s connections with each other is key to reducing the impacts of loneliness. Our social connections play an important role in building the foundations of a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. What happens if those social connections are hard to come by? What if there is something which sets us apart from the people around us?

Since mid-2017 in Broken Hill in Far West NSW, Mission Australia has been delivering our Connections Program to link lonely people to community activities at times when there are very few community facilities open. Funded by NSW Health, the program is run in collaboration with the Far West Local Health District and community based mental health service, Grow.

Like many regional and rural areas, Broken Hill is a geographically isolated place with some residents who experience that isolation as loneliness, sometimes alongside mental illness. It became apparent to our local staff that people were visiting the local hospital at night or on the weekend because they had nowhere else to go for support and no social network to reach out to.

Now, more than 90 people in Broken Hill have received after-hours support from the program which promotes social inclusion, social skills and community participation.

It’s a unique service delivered by Mission Australia peer workers, who draw on their own personal experiences of mental health concerns and recovery to provide high quality support and mentoring to participants. These peer workers use and harness their own lived expertise to help locals build connections between each other and the broader community. It’s an effective and mutually beneficial way to help people recover by building confidence and knowledge for both the peer worker and the person receiving support.

Not only has the service dramatically reduced numbers of lonely people presenting to their local hospital for support, but participants have expressed that their involvement in the program has positively transformed their lives. The Connections Program is working to help keep people well, socially connected and build that important sense of belonging in their community.

On Thursday 28 February at 9:30pm on SBS Viceland, Mission Australia’s Connections Program will feature on SBS "The Feed". It is our hope that the story will shine a light on the importance of services like this one in helping to connect people in their community and dispel the very real pain of loneliness.

It’s clear that more needs to be done across Australia to acknowledge, respond to and better support people who are experiencing loneliness. In the absence of other social connections, we will need more services like the Connections Program to respond to loneliness so we can help improve people’s wellbeing and social connections where it is needed. So that everyone has someone to turn to, anywhere and all year round.

Photo of James Toomey, CEO of Mission Australia

 

James Toomey
CEO Mission Australia
@jbc_toomey

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Purpose - 'Inspired by Jesus Christ, Mission Australia exists to meet human need and to spread the knowledge of the love of God'