Revisiting our rituals

We are witnessing an increase in loneliness of more than 11% and another increase of 2.9% in the severely lonely since 2019

In 2019 the Faculty for Social Wellbeing conducted ground-breaking research which revealed that 43% of people over the age of 11 suffered from loneliness.

This study by Prof. Marilyn Clark, Jamie Bonnici and myself created waves in our community. At the time we committed ourselves to keep doing this study every three years.

The data for 2022 paints a worrying trend. At the moment we are in the process of trying to analyse the full data set but the initial findings are quite shocking.

We are witnessing an increase in loneliness of more than 11% and another increase of 2.9% in the severely lonely since 2019.

What the 2022 study has confirmed is that ‘loneliness’ is a major social issue in the proportions of an epidemic, which is affecting our communities at the core.

The 2019 study allowed the faculty to place the issue of loneliness on the national agenda. It also helped steer the faculty to research other areas like ‘solitary conferment’ and ‘deinstitutionalisation’ - subjects that have attracted the attention of many, including parliament. Nevertheless, it saddens me to say that not much has been done in terms of direct policy action.

Some shocking data extrapolated from our 2022 study shows that 7.4% (26,862 persons) rated their coping ability as ‘not so good’. Results reveal that just over a tenth of respondents (10.5% - 38,115 persons) do not feel positive about their life. Two out of 10 of the respondents (20.8% - 75,504 persons) experience a general sense of emptiness.

Almost one in 10 of respondents (9.6% - 34,848 persons) revealed that they do not feel that there are plenty of people they can lean on when they have problems.

More than one in 10 respondents (13.8% - 50,094 persons) reported that they do not have a close friend. When participants were asked whether they miss having a really close friend, 29% (105,270 persons) replied with a ‘yes’ - this figure was higher amongst those aged between 11 and 19 (39.2%).

A further 13.7% (49,731 persons) do not feel that they can call on their friends when in need and 16.6% (60,258 persons) of respondents do not feel that there are many people they can trust completely.

The feeling of not having enough friends or acquaintances was more commonly reported by participants who did not feel a strong sense of belonging in their neighbourhood. Only 5.3% of those with a very strong sense of neighbourhood belonging and 6.3% of those with a fairly strong sense of neighbourhood belonging, felt that they did not have enough friends and acquaintances. Meanwhile, not having enough friends and acquaintances was reported by 13% of those who consider their neighbourhood belonging to be not very strong, and the figure was 17.8% of those with a ‘not at all strong’ sense of neighbourhood belonging.

To top it up, an estimated 198,198 (54.6%) persons feel lonely to a degree or other. If this is not worrying, I really don’t know what is!

As a country we urgently need to walk the talk. The evidence-based data is, from where I stand, pointing towards cataclysmic levels.

The main solution I find for this problem is that people need to return to rituals – rituals are our security and with a society which is becoming ever more individualistic and secular this void is creating problems.

People, now more than ever, tend to live the challenges they are facing on their own and cutting off (or being cut off) from others is leaving enormous scars. Other tangible actions could include more widespread access to talk therapy; closer work with GPs, who can indicate physical ailments that are possibly a result of loneliness and/or vice versa; improved coordination between services such as government’s LEAP, the Church’s Djakonija and Soup Kitchens; bringing to life a national policy and strategy on suicide ideation and prevention; developing a national policy and strategy on loneliness; contemplating a change in our economic model; setting up of both a commissioner and a parliamentary secretary on loneliness.

Loneliness is costing the country a great deal of money. The ‘excuse’ I see being thrown at us is that we blame it on COVID-19. If we do that, our analysis would be minimalistic. Even if it was the case (which I don’t think so) it also means that not enough work was done to address the post-COVID era, something I have been saying for the last 18 months

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reality that ‘simply’ exposed our social weaknesses. It brought to the surface issues like a lack of solid community services and the reality that families are drifting apart. It showed that new family models are not given the necessary support to function effectively and exposed ineffective local councils. It exposed people who are over-dedicated to their work, leading to a drop in volunteering. COVID exposed and fuelled a growth in poverty, the risk of social exclusion and the number of suicides and suicide ideation.

But I predict that the statistics we are revealing in this loneliness study wouldn’t have been very different without COVID-19.

If this situation doesn’t call for urgent action, I really don’t know what does.

This study captured Maltese citizens. So far, the estimated 20% of our population which is foreign and the thousands that reside in institutional care are not being bagged by this data which I foresee would have given us even higher numbers. The survey was carried out through telephone interviews, with a sample size of 572 individuals. Research was conducted from the age of 11 years upwards, with a confidence interval of +/- 4.1%. The data was collected in July 2022.