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Byron Shire
March 6, 2021

Silent epidemics

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Mandy Nolan is spot on about the need for people with mental health issues – and that includes most of us at some stage – to feel part of our communities (The Echo, 11 October). ‘Inclusion’, she says, is a major pathway to recovery.

But it’s not easy, not in the current era of junk values in which individualism and competitiveness prevail, and where digital technologies are, despite all appearances, keeping us apart. Many in our communities live in mini domestic fortresses in which family members are often strangers, secreted away in TV media rooms or chained to computers and smartphones. The destructive impacts of social media are only now being made known, with evidence showing diminished social skills, lowered self-esteem and more mental health problems among avid users, as Katherine Ormerod points out in Why social media is your ruining your life.

Sadly, many of us have forgotten how to engage with each other, how to converse, listen, share and actively care. We’re generally too busy or preoccupied, or we’ve forgotten to value each other in ways that boost our sense of wellbeing. Increasingly, people live alone, or work all day, or buy into the neoliberal con that being turbocharged and aloof is somehow cool.

It’s not me saying this, but the likes of George Monbiot in Out of the Wreckage, Johan Hari in Lost Connection, Susan Pinker in The Village Effect, and Hugh MacKay in Australia Reimagined. It’s also found in surveys conducted by organisations like Reachout Australia, Families Australia, Lifeline and St Vincent de Paul, who variously report that up to two-thirds of Australians feel lonely – often desperately so.

Monbiot et al are on the money when it comes to the underlying causes of ‘epidemics’ of loneliness, anxiety and depression. Australia ranks as one of the most depressed populations on planet Earth – a boon of course for the pharmaceutical companies, but a major impost on our already over-stretched health services.

What’s needed, I think, is not so much an appeal for more ‘inclusion’ – even though that’s absolutely vital – but rather a conversation about how we can create a better society through closer, more compassionate and engaged relationships, and stronger communities, neighbourhoods and families. We need to get to know each other again, to reconnect outside the remit off the market.

This also involves dealing with the prejudices that divide us – ethnic, gender, class, age, disability, sexual orientation etc. And that’s not easy either, because these divisions run deep and are constantly reinforced by politicians, media commentators and the like.

The fact is that Australia is in considerable trouble when it comes to the state of our collective being. Despite all the archetypal images of the jolly Aussie, the myth of backyard neighbourliness and mateship, it seems that the evidence is telling us something very different – and it’s not a pretty picture.

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