Many people are feeling more lonely during the coronavirus pandemic, but some say the experience has made them feel “dispensable”, compounding a sense of isolation and exacerbating mental health issues.
- People living with a disability, or in aged care, felt written off as “collateral damage” during the pandemic
- Gus Worland advocated for Australian men to embrace “vulnerable silence” to help confront mental health issues
- A mother whose adult son took his own life asked how to help people suffering with loneliness
Rosemary Kayess, associate director of the Disability Innovation Institute at the University of NSW, was speaking on Monday as a member of a Q+A panel that also included radio personality Gus Worland, author Sarah Wilson, psychologist Hugh Mackay and the scientific chair of Ending Loneliness Together, Michelle Lim.
As the panel discussed social fragmentation, Ms Kayess agreed it could lead to loneliness and said those living with a disability were highly exposed to it.
“That specific [physical] segregation is structurally embedded for people with disability, the way they’re segregated in education, the way they’re segregated in terms of residential care and services,” she said.
“And it’s that structural segregation that disconnects them and really does see them as different.”
‘We’re just the collateral damage’
She pointed to the critical care triage systems developed in countries like Italy, Spain and the UK when those nations were in the depths of the pandemic, that were detrimental to disabled people.
“We’d started the pandemic … saying, ‘Look, for most people it’s just going to be a mild flu … it’s really only a concern for the people with pre-existing conditions, and the elderly,'” she said.
“And that sort of started the concept that we’re just the collateral damage.
“There was examples from various countries where they were singling out diagnostic groups [including people with a disability] … that wouldn’t receive critical care.
“I had this illusion that I thought I was doing a pretty good job with my life — working, I own my home, I love my family and I’ve got friends — and thought I was contributing, but when it came down to it, I was dispensable.
“I was not one of the real people, and, yeah, it hit me in the face.”
Ms Kayess said those thoughts were shared by many people living with a disability and by those in aged care homes.
Being vulnerable, being curious
Monday night’s episode also discussed the mental health of Australian men, with Lifeline indicating that 75 per cent of Australians who take their own life are male.
The parents of Paul Martin, who took his own life in 2017, aged 41, asked how to start a difficult conversation that might help spare other families from similar tragedy.
“[Paul] had numerous neighbours and friends at various organisations that he was in, but it appears he kept his worries to himself, not really opening up to anyone — deep loneliness even though often surrounded by friends,” Sue Martin said.
“We were unaware of how dark he had become.
“We knew that some things were not quite right in his life, but we heard things from other friends later (like), ‘I thought he was acting strangely’ or ‘I told him he needed to get help.’
“But you can’t just grab someone by the collar and drag them off to a psychiatrist.
“How do you open that conversation up?”
Mr Worland drew on his experiences as a broadcast interviewer to explain how being able to tolerate uncomfortable silence can lead to important conversations.
“Dead air on radio is literally dead air — for me to sit in vulnerable silence and to teach blokes to have that conversation where you don’t have to flow all the time and not everything is moving and grooving,” Mr Worland said.
“[The] type of discussion where you might have tears coming out of your eyes, snot coming out of your nose and you’re trying to get stuff out — that vulnerable conversation of gravity is the conversation we should be having more of.
“Blokes, even if they’re together, they’re lonely because they’re not talking about what it means to them.”
‘Man up and speak up’
Mr Worland encouraged people to be vulnerable in conversations.
“You have to just go for it and have those conversations that are awkward and vulnerable,” he said.
“People that see someone that’s going through something like that, they’ve got to man up and speak-up.
“There’s no doubt it’s hard. It’s the most difficult thing on the planet, but we have to (do it).
“I like to talk about mental health as mental fitness. Just like you’re getting yourself physically fit, you have to get mentally fit and grind through those moments.”