Disabled four times more likely to report feeling lonely most of the time - report

While levels of loneliness have largely returned to pre-pandemic levels, the disabled appear to be getting left behind.

New figures show they're four times more likely than non-disabled to report feeling lonely most or all of the time - 11.3 percent compared to 2.8 percent in December. 

"Systemic issues such inaccessible buildings, inadequate housing and high unemployment can make it difficult for disabled people to connect with others," says Prudence Walker, chief executive of the Disabled Persons Assembly NZ.

"We may not have colleagues, we are not able to easily socialise at the places other people do, and we may not be able to afford to participate on an equal basis. There are so many things we need to have in place to connect with other people that it can be exhausting. It's no wonder people feel lonely."

The new figures form the centrepiece of the latest report from the Helen Clark Foundation, Still Alone Together - How loneliness changed in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2020 and what it means for public policy. It's a follow-up to the foundation's June 2020 report, Alone Together: The risks of loneliness in Aotearoa New Zealand following COVID-19 and how public policy can help.

The difference is through 2020, Statistics NZ began collecting more demographic data on wellbeing.

"We now have access to information about self-reported loneliness broken down by disability status," report author Holly Walker says. 

"As a result, we can report something we suspected in 2020 but could not illustrate with quantitative data: that disabled people are disproportionately negatively impacted by loneliness by a significant margin."

Mike Potter, chief executive of Disability Connect - an Auckland-based resource centre - told The AM Show on Tuesday the findings weren't a surprise.

"It's a reality for disabled people that we're more lonely because we're more isolated. We tend to find it more difficult to get around, to be welcome and to be included within society and our communities." 

He said while the weeks-long lockdowns of last year are a memory for some, many in the disabled community are still nervous about having to do it all over again. 

"As soon as the Prime Minister makes an announcement that we're going into lockdown, if you've got a disabled child in your care with an intellectual disability - they could be in their 20s or 30s - you immediately have to think about the care for tomorrow morning, you need to think about how you're going to tell them about this... they're going to come back and ask you again, again and again. 

"There's no time to go out and shop for toilet paper, there's no time to go and get your hair cut. For people with disabilities, this is their life, this is their world."

Others reporting higher levels of loneliness than usual include the unemployed, low-income earners, single parents, young people, recent migrants and Māori.

"New Zealand has undoubtedly experienced one of the best worldwide responses to COVID-19, but within that, some people have still been left lonely, isolated, and vulnerable. We can't afford to leave some people struggling while others recover," says Walker. 

Loneliness and disability.
Loneliness and disability. Photo credit: Helen Clark Foundation.

June's report made a number of recommendations to the Government, including implementing a guaranteed minimum wage, closing the digital divide, putting more funding into frontline mental health services. Of those, four had been implemented - boosting funding for Whanau Ora, setting up new community development funds, adding loneliness reduction to the COVID-19 psychosocial and mental wellbeing recovery plan and investing more in vocational training.

Several recommendations had seen "some progress, but more required": increasing benefits (though falling short of setting a guaranteed minimum income), widening access to and funding for ultra-fast broadband, having Kainga Ora developments " prioritise social wellbeing", and directing targeted mental health funding to at-risk groups.

The report said nothing had changed in other areas, such as making public transport more accessible and "minimising dangerous enforced proximity", increasing access to mental health services (allocated funding going unspent, and the rollout of new services being "inconsistent and slow") and ensuring the disabled had internet access. 

"Loneliness remains a significant public policy challenge because its myriad negative health and wellbeing impacts are disproportionately affecting those who were already most negatively impacted by COVID-19," said Walker.

"A particular focus on the social wellbeing of disabled people, unemployed people, people on low incomes, sole parents, and young people is required."

The full report - including accessible and 'easy read' versions - are available on the Helen Clark Foundation website.