By Ms Jamie Bonnici, Research Support Officer at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing
When the research team with whom I work began delving into research about loneliness, the statistics from other countries showed that it is highly prevalent in modern times. However, throughout the months spent working on the Faculty for Social Wellbeing’s National Prevalence Study of Loneliness in the Maltese population aged 11 years and above, there was something else which was intriguing; from watching the Faculty’s documentary (Il-Ġerħa tas-Solitudni: il-Mixja lejn Soluzzjoni) and encountering various individuals throughout the research process, it became clear that loneliness can be an issue for those people one would least expect.
Researching a topic such as loneliness creates a situation where the door opens and people feel as though they can let their guard down and confess to their own experience of struggling with intense loneliness. In this sense, it might have been the case that such individuals were given a sense of legitimacy to talk about how they had felt unbearable loneliness at certain points in their lives.
Much like the increasing awareness and diagnosis of mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, provided a space for more people to open up about their own mental health struggles, a similar phenomenon occurred when we began publicly discussing and formally researching loneliness.
The results of our national prevalence study also provided several insights into the potential contributing factors for the relatively high number (43%) of Maltese persons who are classified as lonely. Looking into a number of sociodemographic variables, such as whether a person feels that their household income is adequate and whether they are living with a disability, revealed a more complete picture of what might predispose someone to being lonely.
It is important to note that loneliness is an inherently subjective phenomenon. Yet, scholars have found ways of defining and measuring this complex emotion. A central feature of loneliness is that it is strongly influenced by a person’s evaluation of their desired social connections against a backdrop of their actual social connections (De Jong Gierveld, 1998). The quality of one’s connections may also be more relevant to this evaluation than the actual quantity. In other words, someone might have thousands of friends on Facebook, but not feel that they can turn to anyone when times get rough.
In light of these facts and findings, it might be worthwhile to consider the importance of nurturing our connections with those close to us. Loneliness can happen for any person, at any time. Sometimes there may be a particular event that triggers it, such as the illness or loss of a loved one, but it can also creep up on us when we least expect it. Loneliness also has the tendency to create a vicious circle, isolating its sufferer and making them less likely to reach out to others.
We can all do our part to tackle loneliness - whether that means reaching out to others when we feel lonely or when sensing that another person might be struggling. It is also possible to be proactive and prevent loneliness from potentially striking down the line; Becoming more actively engaged with our communities or doing our part to improve a particular situation. We are lucky to have a plethora of volunteer opportunities and social events available in Malta, most of which would go a long way towards warding off loneliness. There are also plenty of interesting and fulfilling courses available at the University, for those people who would like to make a career out of helping lonely people and, ultimately, themselves. And all it takes is a small step in the right direction.
This article was first published on www.independent.com.mt, on Tuesday 17 March 2020.