‘The pain of loneliness is real’

PETALING JAYA: For Norlina Ahmad, loneliness is not just about being without a companion – it is a catalyst for several illnesses.

The 35-year-old copywriter said she had had few friends since she was young and a very limited social life.

“I am unmarried and, at 35, I have yet to find love. Most of my friends were married before 30, which means I do not have companions to spend time with outside of work,” she said.

“I just juggle between work and home. They say people can die of heartbreak and I think it is true.”

Norlina said she was diagnosed with depression due to loneliness.

“The constant rumination gave me sleepless nights and caused a string of health issues, including fatigue and a weaker immune system.

“As a result, I contracted fever constantly,” she said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently launched a commission on social connection, after acknowledging that loneliness and social isolation were a global public health threat.US Surgeon-General Dr Vivek Murthy, who will be leading the commission, said the health risks of loneliness was as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than those associated with obesity and physical inactivity.

Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) president Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj said it was a timely move, adding that the glaring effects of social isolation and loneliness were more “painfully felt” during Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.

He said social isolation would not only result in psychological decompensation, but it would also cause anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and the deterioration of physical health, particularly in relation to cardiovascular disease, dementia and could even result in premature deaths, he added.

“With the expanding aged population in Malaysia, the concerns of social isolation and loneliness become all the more relevant.

“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Japan took the bold step of appointing a minister to look into isolation and loneliness.

“Other countries have junior ministers for mental well-being being distinct from health, realising the social determinants of mental well-being can be far more important than the generally understood medical approach,” Dr Andrew added.

He urged the government to look into the possibility of setting up a national level platform to tackle the problem.

He said this could entail a cross-sector and multi-agency approach with the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry taking the lead as social welfare falls under its purview.

“The pain of social isolation and loneliness is real and we should not take this lightly in our efforts to build a caring and cohesive society,” he said.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia health economics and public health specialist Prof Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh said there were a lot of restrictions on social interactions during the pandemic lockdowns.

She said these interactions were needed since humans are social creatures.

“Certain generations, for example, the elderly, and single parents might live apart from other family members and may need to support themselves.

“If they live on their own, they won’t get visits or help from other community members,” she said.

Citing studies, Prof Sharifa Ezat said those who suffer from extreme loneliness had four times the number of suicidal thoughts.

“Loneliness can be present with depression, unresolved stress, self-harm, poor cognitive function, premature death, poor health and suicidal ideas.

“Many cases of suicide have happened in Malaysia and although there are many factors, one of them is loneliness,” she said.

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