‘People still do not realise how serious the problem of loneliness is’

Loneliness is getting worse because people don't understand what a serious problem it is, says Prof. Andrew Azzopardi

Prof. Andrew Azzopardi
Prof. Andrew Azzopardi

Most people still do not understand how serious a problem loneliness is, according to sociologist Prof. Andrew Azzopardi.

The dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing is one of the authors of the first nationwide study on the subject, which found that roughly a third of the Maltese population suffers from some degree of loneliness.

“I absolutely think that loneliness is getting worse,” Azzopardi told MaltaToday. “We have a good healthcare system but we are not capitalising on the resources we have because people do not realise just how big the problem is.”

He said that unless action is taken, the country risks a situation which can get “worse than we can ever imagine”.

The study was carried out by the Faculty for Social Well-being, together with the National Statistics Office, and found that of the 1,000 people surveyed, 43.5% said they were either moderately (41.3%), severely (1.7%) or very severely lonely (0.7%).

It found that 42% of those aged between 35 and 54 felt they were moderately lonely, with the proportion increasing to 55.3% among those aged 55 and over.

Perhaps an unsurprising trend that was borne out of the study was that loneliness was more prevalent among the elderly and people with a disability.

Azzopardi pointed to the fact that half of disabled respondents who took part in the study said they had limited access to leisure because they had nobody to take them out.

“Humans are meant to be with other humans. For as long as we’ve existed we’ve been pack creatures. We need each other,” he said.

Azzopardi stressed that when discussing the subject it was important for one to make a distinction between loneliness and solitude. He explained that there was nothing wrong with people wanting to spend some time alone, but warned that this became a problem when it turned into a “negative emotion that the individual has no control over”.

“Loneliness can be very destructive on a person’s life,” he said, “especially since loneliness and depression go hand in hand and because one can lead to the other.

“You can be depressed, and as a side effect isolate yourself, leading to you becoming lonely. On the other hand, you can be lonely, which can lead to you feeling depressed.”

A third of respondents in the study also said they felt some degree of emptiness in their lives. 15.2% said they felt a general sense of emptiness while 17.9% felt that this was more or less the case. One in five said they had no friends to call when in need.

Azzopardi pointed out that while one needed to take stock of the situation locally, loneliness was a universal feeling and something which transcended national identity and culture. “It’s something we all feel, and that we all understand, no matter where we live in the world.”

A majority of those who took part in the survey said they felt a moderately to very strong feeling of belonging in their own neighbourhood, with 21.1% saying they felt a ‘slightly strong’ feeling and 11.9% saying they did not feel they belonged.

In this regard, Azzopardi said that the country needed solutions at three different levels.

Firstly, he said, the issue needed to be addressed at a national level. “The data that been accumulated needs to be translated into social policy. The government has to act and address the issue,” Azzopardi said.

At a local level, he said that society needed to do more to understand what is happening on the ground and to figure out ways to address the problems.

“Lastly, at the individual level, we need to start encouraging people to attend counselling and to treat loneliness as a real condition.”

The research was carried out among people aged 11 and over, from all across Malta and Gozo and gauged both social loneliness – the absence of social contact – and emotional loneliness, where one might feel alone despite having a social network to interact with.
96.7% of the respondents were born in Malta, with 41.8% having attained at least a post-secondary level of education. 94.2% of respondents said they did not live alone, with a majority saying they lived with other family members. 59.8% said they lived with a spouse or partner.

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