Alisa Camplin: How we’re tackling loneliness

More Australians than ever before are feeling lonely and isolated. How can we help these individuals to reconnect?

Alisa  Camplin

Alisa Camplin

Alisa Camplin is Australia’s first ever female Winter Olympic gold medallist, a working mum and dedicated resilience and high performance consultant.

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The response to my recent loneliness article has been overwhelming, with readers from around the country getting in touch to share their stories. One, in particular, got me thinking. It was from a vice principal who went on stress leave and found the experience extremely isolating and lonely. She emailed because those experiences inspired her to devise a way to help others who were in similar circumstances.

She started working with coffee shops in her local area, buying gift vouchers for people who were feeling alone so they could come in for free coffee and a chat. While it’s hard to judge the effectiveness of these initiatives (in the clinical sense), I think these localised efforts from everyday people who have experienced loneliness, speak to a clear desire for action to combat this epidemic. So, what’s being done about this issue, and how can people get involved?

Overseas programs

The UK are tackling the loneliness problem head-on. In addition to appointing a minister for loneliness, they’re taking a street-based approached to the issue. One of the initiatives that they’ve launched is ’10 ways to be more us’, a program based around fostering real community connections on a local level. The intention is to crowd out negative behaviours by flooding yourself with positive interactions. While you can’t really ‘fix’ loneliness, you can increase the number of connections between people.

In the Netherlands, where 50 per cent of people over the age of 55 report loneliness, they’re taking a similar approach. Jumbo, a major Dutch supermarket chain, has begun trialling a ‘coffee corner’ where people can come together. As well, they have a ‘chat checkout’ staffed by a cashier who’s happy to make conversation with customers – a direct response to the rise of self-checkout machines.

Here at home

Australia is also making promising strides towards dealing with loneliness. Led by Dr Michelle Lim, the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University teamed up to conduct the Australian Loneliness Report, a comprehensive look at the state of loneliness in the country.

Among the key takeaways was the discovery that just over half of Australians feel lonely for at least one day of the week, while 24.5 per cent indicated they can’t find companionship when they want it. Figures like these really drive home the scale of this issue. If you were to look around your office – or even within your social group – half the people you interact with on a day-to-day basis feel isolated.

There’s also an assumption that it’s the elderly who are the most at-risk. While that’s an area the UK is focussing on, the Swinburne study found that Australians over 65 years old are actually the least lonely demographic. In fact, young adults reported higher levels of social interaction anxiety than older people – a factor linked with loneliness.

It’s also important to acknowledge that feelings of loneliness often occur in tandem with the experience of social anxiety. As the Swinburne report revealed, 25 per cent of Australians experience high levels of social interaction anxiety. That anxiety creates a barrier that can compound feelings of loneliness. So, when it comes to helping or supporting people with these issues, you can’t just say, ‘You should join a club,’ or ‘Try talking to people on the bus,’ - it’s too flippant.

App-based approaches

While technology is sometimes linked to exacerbated levels of loneliness, it’s also proving to be a useful tool in fighting the epidemic itself. Researchers at Swinburne University, including Dr Michelle Lim, have conducted several trials of a smartphone app, +Connect, which aims to reduce loneliness levels and increase meaningful social interactions for young people. Programs have been conducted across different groups of young people, ranging from those with no mental health disorders to those with social anxiety and those with psychosis. The pilot program delivered daily positive psychology videos to users across six weeks and showed great potential – with 90 per cent of participants agreeing that the app helped them to increase their social confidence.

The Red Cross is experimenting with a similar app-based intervention, launching MyTeam for the iOS and Android platforms. The app allows ‘captains’ to create a personalised network of ‘supporters’ that can help you accomplish your goals. By inviting supporters to join your team, the app fosters a sense of collaboration and community. Users can also track their moods and goals to build a picture of their mental wellbeing over time. Perhaps most importantly, if a captain registers several low moods in a row, the app alerts their supporters and guides them with helpful suggestions as to how they can best support the person in need. This kind of digital network creates meaningful connections which can be particularly useful for those who struggle to articulate when they’re struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In-person

Outside of the digital space, there are steps you can take to help those who may be feeling lonely. I try to use the action of walking into a new space as a trigger that reminds me to smile at people. I will often randomly strike up conversations in lifts, or in cafés with people who are serving me. I try to say something warm and positive, whether that’s complimenting their smile or thanking them for opening the door – whatever it is.

Now, I don’t have problematic social anxiety – so it’s easy for me to start conversations with strangers. I’m comfortable saying, ‘Oh, I love your shoes,’ or, ‘What are you listening to?’ If you’re the same, then you can use that strength as a way to help people. You might not know who is among the 50 per cent feeling lonely, but you can bring a moment of connection to those that you meet as you go about your day.

The UK research showed 82 per cent of people agreed that a small moment of connection can break down divisions between people. That’s part of the reason I’ve made a personal commitment as a leader to get to know the people around me better. I want the people in my life – personally and professionally - to know that I notice them, and care about all the parts of who they are, to strengthen those relationships.

Volunteering, which I’ve discussed before, is also a great means of fostering community connection. I’ve got a beautiful friend who organises regular catch-ups with all her friends to spend some time together at FareShare. Instead of going out to dinner to fancy restaurants they help others have dinner! It’s a way to connect, give back, and socialise all at once. Volunteering or participating in community activities is a great way to strengthen relationships and to meet new people in a more comfortable and less threatening way. Similarly, my husband and I have started a team walking/running group to help support our charity project Finnan’s Gift for exactly this reason. It was something we could do personally to bring people together once a year to make a difference, while being healthy and having fun, too. Feel free to join us if you’d like to connect!

What if I’m feeling lonely?

If you’re personally feeling isolated, it’s important to look at driving up the quality of your interactions and relationships. By working on interactions – even minor ones – you can begin to see the benefits of positive connections. The Australian Psychological Society have a really great resource in ‘Tips to connect and thrive’ – a downloadable PDF guide that offers 14 ways that you can work toward fostering meaningful relationships. Print it out, keep it somewhere you can refer back to, and remember – we’re all in this together.

If you feel that you’re struggling with your mental health, speak to a medical professional. Lifeline Australia can be reached at 13 11 14.

Alisa  Camplin

A former world champion aerial skier, Alisa Camplin made sporting history in 2002 as the first ever Australian woman to win gold at the Winter Olympics. After 18 years as a global corporate executive, Alisa now juggles a mix of sport, business, consulting, charity and governance roles. No stranger to physical and emotional trials, Alisa runs Resilience and High Performance programs to assist others in achieving their full potential. Awarded the prestigious Order of Australia medal, Alisa is passionate about mental wellbeing and helping people thrive. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

Disclaimer:
The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.