The research is in… social connections are the antidote to anxiety and depression
Authors: Irene Opper, Maureen Maher, Jane Figgis and Sharon Clifford, Neighbourhood Connect 2023
Research from Australia and around the world demonstrates that social connections are an important antidote to loneliness, anxiety and depression and that people with good community connections are happier and experience less depression, anxiety and physical health problems.
Our fast-paced world and the big changes we have seen in how we live, work and play, including the technology revolution, have impacted on our lives in many ways, including a loss of community connection. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and public health orders worsened this situation, with one in two Australian survey respondents in 2020 stating they had felt lonelier since the start of the pandemic.1 A decrease in community cohesion and increase in isolation, fear and individualism also occurred.2, 3 Whilst during this time, neighbours were more likely to help each other compared with prior to the pandemic;4 the COVID-19 crisis has had a negative impact on social cohesiveness overall.2, 3
Our fast paced world and the big changes we have seen in how we live, work and play, including the technology revolution, have impacted on our lives in many ways, including a loss of community connection.
With so many benefits to be gained by social connectedness, Neighbourhood Connect has taken up the challenge of reversing this trend by being a catalyst for a connected neighbourhoods movement. Our aim is to support people all over Australia to form neighbourhood groups and develop supportive relationships so all of us can feel a sense of belonging where we live. Read on for a deeper understanding of the issue; the problem, the cause and a solution.
The Problem – an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety and depression in Australia.
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health conditions in Australia and are
currently at epidemic proportions. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 5 , in 2020-
21, 16.8% (3.3 million) of Australians aged 16-85 experienced anxiety in any one year and 7.5%
(around 1.5 million people) experienced depression and other affective disorders. 5 These rates
were higher for young people aged 16-24 years, at 32% for anxiety disorders and 14% for
depressive disorders. 5 In 2021, 3144 Australians took their own lives (an average of nine suicides
per day) 6 and in 2017, 65,000 people attempted suicide (178 attempts per day). 7
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health conditions in Australia and are currently at epidemic proportions. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics5, in 2020-21, 16.8% (3.3 million) of Australians aged 16-85 experienced anxiety in any one year and 7.5% (around 1.5 million people) experienced depression and other affective disorders.5 These rates were higher for young people aged 16-24 years, at 32% for anxiety disorders and 14% for depressive disorders.5 In 2021, 3144 Australians took their own lives (an average of nine suicides per day)6 and in 2017, 65,000 people attempted suicide (178 attempts per day).7
There is mounting evidence of correlations between loneliness, isolation and mental and physical health issues.8 Research suggests that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being physically inactive, obese, or having high blood pressure.9, 10 People who are lonely die at a younger age, report higher levels of depression and anxiety and a loss of confidence.9 There is a strong link between social anxiety, loneliness and depression, and loneliness earlier in life can be a predictor of future states of anxiety, paranoia, and depression.11 Social isolation can also increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.12
Disconnection leads to depression and anxiety
There is widespread recognition that a focus on the individual alone cannot solve or turn around our epidemic of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Journalist and author Johann Hari comprehensively reviewed the evidence on the causes of anxiety and depression and concluded that both arise from disconnection: it isn’t just a matter of the brain going wrong; it is caused by life going wrong.13 He identified the solution to loneliness is reciprocal relationships – where people care about and help one another.13
“If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs – for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life”.
Johann Hari, Journalist and Author, Lost Connections
Australia is a disconnected society with our social capital in decline
There is a pervasive and frequently expressed perception about a sense of loss of community in Australia, together with a fear of its consequences, and a longing to belong and to reconnect with community.14 Prominent social theorists such as Hugh McKay and Eva Cox have echoed this sentiment, as have politicians at all levels of government and on both sides of Australian politics. The importance of mental health (and the costs of poor mental health) has also come to prominence as a key issue that influences and is influenced by the wellbeing of communities.14, 15
As people become disconnected from family, friends, neighbours and social structures, social capital (with its components of connectedness, trust and participation)16 deteriorates, threatening civic and personal health. Australian research has found that Australia’s social capital is in decline. Membership of major Australian organisations (including Scouts, Guides, Rotary, Lions and the Australian Conservation Foundation) has declined, as has membership of political parties and unions. Australians are also less likely to attend church or participate in sport.17 Around one-third of Australian adults are not involved in any social or community groups.18
This decline is of great concern because the two forms of community involvement that are consistently associated with higher levels of social support are voluntary and charity work, and active membership of sporting groups and community organisations.19 It is alarming that Australian studies have found that only 35% of people trust their neighbours,20 and almost one in ten (9.5%) lack social support.21
Towards a Solution – Neighbourhood connection
“Depression and anxiety can lead to suicide. Friendship, connectedness, engagement, community – these are the great lifesavers.”
Hugh Mackay, Social Researcher and Author.
Mackay, Hugh. (2013). The Good Life. Sydney, NSW: Pan Macmillan
There is ample proof that where community connections are strong, people are protected from depression and even hospital admissions. In rural Spain, researchers found extremely low rates of depression because there was a strong community protecting people.23 Likewise, the Amish in America, who live in a close community without modern conveniences like cars, phones and the internet, have significantly lower levels of depression than other Americans.13 The town of Frome in Somerset, England ran the Compassionate Frome Project, which aimed to combat isolation.24 They trained Community Connectors to help people get involved in their neighbourhood, resulting in a dramatic 17% fall in emergency hospital admissions over 3 years, compared to a rise of 29% in the rest of Somerset.24
Researchers agree that social connection shapes our wellbeing across the life span, particularly in later life,25 and that social capital, connectedness, trust and participation are important factors in improving health and wellbeing.16 Participating in social and civic life enhances our levels of social cohesion and higher levels of cohesion are strongly related to lower levels of psychological distress.26 Social cohesion and connectedness are protective factors in emergency or disaster events.3
Initiatives and policies targeting social isolation
So, how do we reconnect people with their community? Doctors at the Bromley-by-Bow Centre in East London utilise ‘Social Prescribing’. They prescribe voluntary work and participation in community projects for people experiencing depression and anxiety, with great success; compiling a list of 100 different ways to reconnect.13 Australian social prescribing initiatives are also increasing, with a number of organisations tackling this issue.27 The World Health Organization believes social prescribing is so effective it has recently published a toolkit to be used by community organisations and individuals to implement social prescribing to improve health and welbeing.28
The building and supporting of strong, safe, socially cohesive communities that embrace social connections and commitment, has become an important goal of policy and initiatives at all levels of government in Australia and overseas. The UK has a Commission on Loneliness and in 2018 appointed a Minister for Loneliness. A Minister for Loneliness has been proposed for Australia too,29 but strong multi-partisan support across all levels of government is required to progress this initiative further.30
One of the aims of the National Mental Health Policy (2008) is to reduce the proportion of Australians with mental health problems, mental illness and at risk of suicide.31 The Policy identifies loss of social supports as a risk factor and building social supports as a protective factor.31
The Fifth National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan (2017) states: “Policy and service development needs to recognise the importance of a holistic and socially inclusive approach to health in promoting mental health and wellbeing, that includes social as well as health domains and supports people to establish community engagement and connectivity.”32
In Everymind’s report, Prevention First: A Prevention and Promotion Framework for Mental Health, community level factors identified as influences on mental health and wellbeing include a positive sense of belonging, community connectedness, activities highlighting and embracing diversity, social support and participation in society.33 Action Area 1 includes actions to prevent the onset of mental ill-health in both the whole community and groups within the community. The report states: “We need to have a focus on prevention if we are to make a difference to the mental health and wellbeing of every person and every community”.33
Jaelea Skehan, Director of Everymind, states:
“Our vision for Australia must include more people living well, so that they don’t need to access the service system at all. We need to look at whole-of-life approaches to preventing ill-health, rather than waiting for an episode that is severe enough to warrant a response from the service system. To continue to do so is costly and unconscionable. ”
Jaelea Skehan, Director, Everymind in Prevention First (2017, page 4)
Australian research has found:
- Neighbours helping out and doing things together has large positive effects on life satisfaction.34
- Small towns have higher community cohesion, with neighbourliness being identified as the foundation of a strong community, and a sense of belonging is a key factor in what makes a place good to live in.26 Neighbourliness is characterised by a ‘high level of interaction with neighbours, friends and family, an ethic of care (offering support and help), mutual respect: observing boundaries, acceptance of diversity and community consultation.’26
- Residents with larger social networks, higher levels of social support, and higher levels of social cohesion in their neighbourhood are more likely to perceive their neighbourhood as safer compared to their counterparts.35
- Perceived neighbourhood safety is related to physical health, and neighbourhood safety and connections (strength of connections with other neighbourhood residents) is related to mental health.36
- Having social connections acts as a buffer against stressful events and can reduce stress levels and protect mental health.37
- Social networks, particularly friends, relatives, neighbours and children, protect against loneliness.38
The research clearly shows that people experience significant benefits when they are connected in their neighbourhoods. If all Australians actively participated in a neighbourhood group, the incidence of loneliness, depression and anxiety could be far less.
The Neighbourhood Connect Solution
According to Hugh Mackay we need communities to sustain us and communities don’t just happen. We need to nurture them.39 There are many activities that bring neighbours together in real life and online to build the meaningful and reciprocal relationships that lead to care and support.
“I am mightily impressed with the Neighbourhood Connect initiative – it’s a particularly good example of the positive action that can be taken to help people make meaningful connections in their neighbourhoods and to deal with the malaise of social fragmentation, isolation, loneliness and anxiety.” Hugh Mackay, AO, Social Researcher and Author
Mackay, H. (2018). Personal email communication to Neighbourhood Connect on 25 September, 2018. Quoted with permission.
Neighbourhood Connect builds social capital by encouraging regular face-to-face contact with people who live within a 5 minute walk of one another. This approach aims to achieve maximum supportive connections; the type of contact needed to make people happier and lessen the incidence of anxiety and depression.
Neighbourhood Connect is creating a movement of connected neighbourhoods, making it easy for people to start neighbourhood groups in their area. The neighbourhood group is the vehicle, or social infrastructure, that enables people to have regular gatherings and over time, develop the connections that lead to mutual support and create a sense of belonging within their neighbourhood.
A Neighbourhood Connect evaluation conducted in December 2018 found that Connectors (leaders) of active neighbour groups are happier, have higher life satisfaction, a greater sense of belonging, more social support and more involvement in local issues than is found in the populations surveyed in large scale Australian studies such as the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA).40
Further, an independent evaluation of Neighbourhood Connect’s ‘Let’s Get Neighbourly’ program conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) in 2022, found that participants of neighbour groups felt increased satisfaction with living in their area, improvements in their connections with neighbours and communities, and improvements in their general health and well-being. 41 Through participation in a Neighbourhood Connect group, participants increased their number of neighbourhood connections by 327%.41
The Neighbourhood Connect website, webinars and Community Connector program provide tested resources and support that enable interested individuals to become effective Connectors. The ANU evaluation found that connectors highly valued these resources (including invitations, group activity ideas and ice-breakers), which increased their confidence to reach out to their neighbours. The ANU evaluation concluded that Neighbourhood Connect’s ‘Let’s Get Neighbourly’ program is an effective method of improving community, connection and wellbeing.
So, all in all, the research is comprehensive and consistent. There is a measurable and worrying problem in the poor mental health, including anxiety and despair, of far too many Australians of all ages. A contributing cause is their disconnection from friends, neighbours, and family, which was particularly highlighted during COVID-19 public health orders and lockdowns in Australia during 2020-2021.
It follows that re-building positive relationships, restoring a sense of belonging to a community would be a healing counter measure and an effective antidote to anxiety and depression.3 Having caring and connected local residents also helps communities prepare for and respond to any future challenges.3 And time and again studies have shown that when people are helped to re-connect, their well-being is enhanced.4 The solution, then, is programs like Neighbourhood Connect which increase the capacity of people to build mutually supportive relationships in their local community.
For more information on improving connections with your neighbours or to become a Community Connector, see our ‘Start a group’ page: https://www.neighbourhoodconnect.org.au/become-a-connector/
Lim M, Lambert G, Thurston L, Argent T, Eres R, Badcock JC, et al. Survey of health and wellbeing – monitoring the impact of COVID-19. [Internet]. Hawthorn VIC: Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute, Swinburne University; 2020. Available from: https://www.swinburne.edu.au/media/swinburneeduau/research-institutes/iverson-health/Loneliness-in-COVID-19-15-07-20_final.pdf
- Kenny S. Community and COVID-19 across Australia – Contextual considerations. In: Brennan MA, Phillips R, Walzer N, Hales BD, editors. Community Development for Times of Crisis: Creating Caring Communities. Milton, UK: Taylor & Francis Group; 2023. p. 14.
- Brennan MA, Phillips R, Walzer N, Hales BD. Creating caring communities to overcome times of crisis. In: Brennan MA, Phillips R, Walzer N, Hales BD, editors. Community Development for Times of Crisis: Creating Caring Communities. Milton, UK: Taylor & Francis Group; 2023. p. 16.
- O’Donnell J. Mapping social cohesion 2022 [Internet]. Melbourne VIC: Scanlon Foundation Research Institute; 2022. Available from: https://scanloninstitute.org.au/mapping-social-cohesion-2022
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing [Internet]. Canberra ACT: ABS; 2022. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing/latest-release
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Suicide & self-harm monitoring: Deaths by suicide over time [Internet]. Canberra: AIHW; 2022. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/suicide-self-harm-monitoring/data/deaths-by-suicide-in-australia/suicide-deaths-over-time
- Better Health Channel. Suicide and mental illness [Internet]. Melbourne VIC: Department of Health Victoria; 2019. Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/suicide-and-mental-illness
- Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med [Internet]. 2010;7(7):e1000316. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
- Kelly JF, Breadon P, Davis C, Hunter A, Mares P, Mullerworth D, et al. Social cities. [Internet]. Melbourne: Grattan Institute; 2012. Available from: https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/137_report_social_cities_web.pdf
- Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Ronzi S, Hanratty B. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart [Internet]. 2016;102(13):1009-16. Available from: https://heart.bmj.com/content/102/13/1009 doi: 10.1136/heartjnl-2015-308790
- Lim MH, Rodebaugh TL, Zyphur MJ, Gleeson JFM. Loneliness Over Time: The Crucial Role of Social Anxiety. J Abnorm Psychol [Internet]. 2016;125(5):620-30. Available from: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-21271-001 doi: 10.1037/abn0000162
- Mihalopoulos C, Le LK-D, Chatterton ML, Bucholc J, Holt-Lunstad J, Lim MH, et al. The economic costs of loneliness: a review of cost-of-illness and economic evaluation studies. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol [Internet]. 2020;55(7):823-36. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00127-019-01733-7 doi: 10.1007/s00127-019-01733-7
- Hari J. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing; 2018.
- Mackay H. The art of belonging: It’s not where you live, it’s how you live. Sydney NSW: Pan Macmillan; 2016.
- Berry HL, Shipley M. Longing to belong: personal social capital and psychological distress in an Australian coastal region. Social Policy Research Paper No. 39 [Internet]. Canberra ACT: Institution, Department of Families H, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs/Division; 2009. Available from: https://melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au/assets/documents/hilda-bibliography/working-discussion-research-papers/2009/Berry_etal_Longing_to_Belong.pdf
- Yiengprugsawan V, Welsh J, Kendig H. Social capital dynamics and health in mid to later life: findings from Australia. Qual Life Res [Internet]. 2018;27:1277–82. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11136-017-1655-9
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- Department of Health. Connecting with community [Internet]. Canberra ACT: Department of Health; 2017. Available from: https://www.headtohealth.gov.au/meaningful-life/connectedness/community
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