This Australian health crisis is taking lives. So why aren't we talking about it?

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Health experts are calling for national action on what they believe is 'Australia’s next big public health crisis' - loneliness.

When 38 year old Allen Dalton finally walked into Broken Hill's health care clinic in outback NSW, the state of his health was dire.

"They nearly booked me in to a hospital cause of me blood pressure was through the roof," says Allen.

They could tell as soon as I walked in that I wasn't in a good way.

Allen's grandpa had passed away a few years before, and since then he had barely left the house, rarely ate and would sometimes go days without sleeping.

During the last few years of his grandpa's life, Allen was his live-in carer, having moved to Broken Hill from Queensland when he fell sick. The death left Allen feeling completely and utterly alone.

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“I got to the point where I was nearly talking to meself.”

 

A PHYSICAL RESPONSE

Allen is just one of many Australians who are struggling with the health impacts of loneliness.

According to the 'Australian Loneliness report'- Australia's most comprehensive report into loneliness and its health impacts - 1 in 4 Australians are lonely.

Lonely Australians have significantly worse physical and mental health, and are 15.2% more likely to be depressed.

"You can die, it will kill you. It's just as risky as physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol or obesity," says Professor Adrian Franklin, who has been researching loneliness in Australia for the past 15 years.

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Whilst the impacts on mental health might seem obvious, Professor Franklin says international research has revealed some surprising effects of loneliness on our physical health.

These include higher blood pressure, an increased risk of diabetes and a weakened immune system - in turn meaning we're more at risk of catching a cold or even an infectious disease.

For Allen, along with the high blood pressure came an array of ailments.

I got really weak, suffered with bad headaches, couldn't concentrate on pretty much anything,

For the first time in his life, he was also diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders - anxiety and depression. Even after seeing a counsellor, Allen went on to spend nearly two years rarely leaving the house, or speaking to other humans.

His case is shocking, but surprisingly common. An analysis of the The Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) data from 2001 to 2017 found that 1.5 million Australians have been lonely for a decade or more.

Professor Franklin says that in surveys he's conducted with the seriously lonely, he hears the same words time and time again.

"It was like they were locked out of their own lives, okay? They felt that they had become invisible, no one saw them anymore."

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"When that has gone on for a significant period, then they will start to report things like they feel cold ...they start to withdraw, they start to get depressed, and they start to become sick."

AUSTRALIA'S NEXT BIG PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS

Professor Franklin is part of a growing chorus of experts calling for action on loneliness - labelling it Australia's next big public health crisis.

"Let's call it a loneliness crisis because loneliness combines health problems with psychological problems and it is a big driver of suicide," says Professor Franklin.

"Some researchers have said that we're in a loneliness epidemic and I wouldn't disagree," says Laura Rouhan, Co-founder of Loneliness charity Friends for Good.

It is huge, it's a national issue, it affects people we know and people we care about.

In the United Kingdom, the issue has gained such attention that they appointed a Minister for Loneliness in early 2018. The idea has received support here in Australia, with Victorian MP Fiona Patten calling for a loneliness minister in state parliament. The issue has received little national attention.

"Absolutely a minister for loneliness would be fantastic," says Laura. "I think there has to be a top down as well as a bottom up approach as well."

Professor Franklin agrees that Australia could do more.

"We're not going anywhere near as much as some countries"

He believes we need to be more attentive to 'belongingness' as a need.

"It's not a bonus in life. It's something that social animals have to have."

If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health, here are some people ready for your call:

 

2:38AM: THE LONELIEST HOUR?

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