BY MAYA ROSE FERNANDES
I recently read a Goan newspaper article about how loneliness is growing among the elderly in Goa. It linked chronic loneliness and social isolation with an increased risk of developing dementia in older adults.
By now, we’ve all read plenty of articles about how social disconnection is linked to poorer health outcomes, in the long-run. But, nobody is addressing the very real and existential loneliness epidemic among youth and middle aged people as well.
Rapid urbanization, the increase in nuclear families, the accompanying disintegration of traditional community structures and the greater investment of time and resources in screens and virtual connectivity has contributed to the problem to such a degree that the world is now facing a loneliness epidemic, and the bad news is that Goa isn’t exempt from this.
The breakdown of extended family systems has led to a loss of inter-generational support networks, adding to feelings of isolation. But, we have to also face the reality that as individuals are doing more emotional and spiritual work to increase their own self-awareness, they are realising that the old systems that required a huge investment of emotional currency do not work for them anymore.
As we evolve into new family structures and ways of being, we need to work harder to set up a new understanding of support networks and maybe work harder to socially connect with people, beyond just our neighbours and family as well.
The pressure on youth and other groups to excel in academics, pursue competitive careers and manage societal expectations, while adhering to familial norms is overwhelming.
Even when surrounded by people and delivering their ‘duty’ to community structures, many people report feeling intensely lonely. The human needs to be heard, understood, accepted and appreciated are fundamental ones that few are ever able to meet, yet they desperately seek out.
But, until we are taught emotional management in more systematic ways, how will we know how to negotiate these challenging dynamics of building positive social connections in the modern world, with all of its demands weighing us down?
While the digital age has inarguably brought us closer together in terms of instant communication and given us more access to information than ever before, it has also pushed us further apart by breaking our connection to reality, presence and the vitality of the messiness of connection with other human beings.
More screen time and less personal interactions are intensifying the feelings of disconnection between people.
People are starving from lack of affection. Relational hunger is prevalent and real. While it is easy to blame the breakdown of certain societal expectations of living, the reality is that as things are rapidly changing in our society, support services are not yet adapting with the speed required.
Being taught emotional management means reminding us that human beings naturally have to handle difficult emotions like sadness, despair and grief, as well as wonderful ones like joy, pleasure and happiness, without spiralling and getting stuck constantly in states of dejection and hopelessness.
These difficult emotional states make people withdraw and retreat into their mobile phones and laptop screens, at the very least. As the fabric of society is changing, as technology is rapidly replacing connection, and as human beings begin to socially withdraw more, they need to recognise the direct correlation to their increased starvation for recognition, attention, care, affection, touch and relationship with other people.
The cons of widespread loneliness are that the increase in mental health illnesses, like depression and heightened anxiety, are contributing to the mental health crisis that psychologists and counsellors declare the country is currently facing, eroding community resilience in its wake.
The pros are that we can put in place new systems and services of support to the populations before the epidemic worsens even more. Individual, societal and governmental efforts are required to foster authentic connections and combat the isolation that has become prevalent in Goa. As individuals receive more support, they will become more self-aware and hopefully be able to extend more empathy to others.
In conclusion, we need to wake up to the fact that loneliness isn’t only rampant among the elderly, but has spread amongst all demographic groups in the Goan population. There are community organizations, support groups and mental health professionals in Goa, who are working to create safe spaces for people to share their true feelings about things, and connect with others in meaningful ways.
The hope is that these initiatives will only get more and more support, and will help break the cycle of loneliness and significantly enhance the well-being of individuals and society.
Individuals, on their part, have to acknowledge the painful reality of what it means to be human, and take responsibility for admitting the realities of what it means to be feeling increasing amounts of relational hunger for affection, care and love. Only then can we make strides to improve our own futures by reaching out to others with open hearts and minds, asking for help if we need it.