Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Most of us are familiar with the facts about Australia’s epidemic of anxiety and our growing problem of social fragmentation, but perhaps we haven’t always appreciated the close connection between them. We should think of them as two sides of the same coin.
Humans are by nature social beings, communitarians, co-operators; we need communities to nurture, sustain and protect us, and even to give us a sense of personal identity, since identity is all about context. So when our social cohesion is threatened—when we feel cut off from the herd—our anxiety level rises.
In a society like ours, where every third or fourth household is occupied by just one person, the risk of people feeling socially isolated, lonely and even socially excluded is greatly increased. Of course, not every solo household contains a person who is socially isolated—many people relish their domestic solitude while remaining fully engaged with family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues. But shrinking households increase the risk of loneliness.
Social media also contributes, paradoxically, to social isolation: while appearing to connect us, the IT revolution has made it easier than ever to stay apart. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when we discover that, among young people, the heaviest users of social media report the highest levels of social isolation and anxiety (there’s the link again). But it’s not just shrinking households or over-use of social media that are isolating us: our rate of relationship breakdown, our increased mobility (we move house once every six years) and our increasing busyness all contribute to the problem.
So strong is the link between social cohesion and mental health, psychologists and medical practitioners are now warning us that social isolation poses a potentially greater threat to public health than obesity. In the UK, the government has just appointed a minister for loneliness in response to growing awareness of the health consequences of social isolation.
Social isolation is by no means the only cause of anxiety. Anxiety can be triggered in individual cases by such things as job insecurity, rent stress, relationship breakdown, loss of faith, addictions, or even a lack of contact with the natural world. But when more than two million Australians are suffering from an anxiety disorder, and a further two million from depression, we need to examine the state of society itself, and that’s where social fragmentation looks like the chief culprit.
We are not mere bystanders to all this. Once we understand the link between social isolation and anxiety, it’s not good enough simply to say, “How interesting.” We ourselves drive social trends by the ways we choose to live. And when so many of those trends threaten the cohesiveness of local neighbourhoods and communities, we must bear some responsibility for their mental health consequences.
It’s not too late to reverse the trend. The best place to start is by being alert to people who might be at risk of social isolation in the street where you live. Get to know your neighbours, especially any who live alone. Smile and say hello whenever you pass someone in the street (that might be just the moment when they needed some recognition.) Join a local choir, book club, dance class or painting group—anything that we will engage you with the life of the local community.
And the payoff is personal as well as societal: focussing on others’ needs is the best antidote to our own anxiety.