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A story to dine in on: Kids who sit down for family dinners are healthier and smarter

Review: Today Ewan Sargent writes in the Sunday Star Times about the benefits of family dinners for children; although family dinners are decreasing across New Zealand.  The Dinners Make Families Survey commissioned by My Food Bag and the Sunday Star Times interviewed 521 children and 630 adults.  It found that we are eating together at home less often, primarily due to parents being too busy.  Whilst a generation ago three-quarters of children ate dinner with their parents each night, now only 51% do the same.  “We are letting this simple analogue mealtime face-to-face connection slip out of our lives,” Sargent wrote.  According to University of Auckland associate professors Dr Jennifer Utter and Dr Simon Denny, adolescents who frequently participate in family meals report better family relationsihps, better indicators of emotional wellbeing, and better eating behaviours.

According to Dr Simon Denny, those students who share family meals are healthier because, among other factors, they are less depressed and less likely to commit suicide.  According to professor Anne Fishel of Harvard Medical School, dinners are places where children can share positive experiences with parents – and “these small moments can gain momentum to create stronger connections away from the table.”  According to ToughLove New Zealand trainer Sytske Oldenburger, family dinners “really assists adolescents opening up communication channels.  It’s good for kids who may have shut down.”  Naturally, from a loneliness perspective, better family connection reduces the risk of child and adolescent loneliness.

Feature photo: Charlotte Martin and daughter Ava preparing dinner for the family. David White/Stuff.

Developing a performance-based Living Standards Dashboard

Loneliness NZ heart logo

Media release: Today Loneliness NZ provided its updated response to the New Zealand Treasury’s request for submissions on the independent report “Treasuring Living Standards Dashboard: Monitoring Intergenerational Wellbeing”, and its proposed Living Standards Dashboard.


The New Zealand Treasury is developing a world-leading framework for prioritising Government policy. Rather than Treasury focusing on a financial measure such as improving GDP per capita, the Treasury is developing the Living Standards Framework, which is based more broadly on improving current and future individual wellbeing. An important element of the Framework is to develop the indicators that make up the Framework’s dashboard. The Treasury commissioned Conal Smith of Kōtātā Insight to prepare a report recommending the indicators that make up the Living Standards Framework. The Treasury has put this report out for consultation.

Our view

We recognise that this is an important consultation for the Treasury, Government, and the wellbeing of all New Zealanders.  We agree with the Chief Economic Adviser, Tim Ng, that the independent report by Conal Smith is “world-class.”

In our view, however, the primary issue with the proposed Living Standards Framework and Dashboard is that it is not performance-based.  What we mean is that it is not focused on a specific measurable outcome.  Instead, it is based around a ‘warm fuzzy’ concept of wellbeing outcomes.  In particular, the Framework is a model of flows and the Dashboard is a categorised list of indicators within the model.  In our experience, this Framework and Dashboard will only achieve about 30% of what is possible if it were performance-based.  Given the likely poorer outcome in its current form, the Framework may in time become more of an academic model or even be disbanded.  That would be a great loss to New Zealand and all New Zealanders.

The good news is that the foundational work to create a performance-based Framework and Dashboard has been completed in parts by Conal Smith’s report, New Zealand Treasury, and Stats NZ.  In this submission, we show how to convert all this work into an integrated performance-based Living Standards Framework and Dashboard.

Our response

To create a performance-based framework, we recommend:

  • An optimisation function that gives clarity to Treasury and Government: To maximise current and future individual wellbeing, as measured by life satisfaction; and to make these subject to international law and conventions, including human rights and New Zealand law, as well as our strongly desired ethics and values.
  • A hierarchical structure of individual wellbeing domains that makes it clear which domains are the primary drivers of this objective function and which are the secondary drivers.
  • The primary domains of individual wellbeing are health, income, social connections, and housing, based on work undertaken by Stats NZ.
  • A hierarchical structure of the capital stocks that makes it clear how the different capital stocks fit together.
  • The framework and dashboard be broad based to capture all the key investments in capital stocks that drive future individual wellbeing – particularly Local Government capital.
  • Each of the labelled capital stocks have two primary capital stocks, i.e. natural capital (environmental capital and ecosystem capital), human capital (knowledge capital and health capital), social capital (social connections capital and trust capital), and produced capital (public capital and private capital).
  • Social connections capital is an intergenerational capital capturing the ease with which society facilitates meaningful social connections. It is made up of community capital, family capital, and friends capital. We identify 30 societal changes that have negative impacted social connections capital over the last forty years.
  • There be one indicator for each domain of wellbeing (we recommend each indicator) and one indicator for each capital stock (we recommend each indicator).
  • There be an efficiency indicator for investments in capital stocks.
The submission, which provides further rationale and the recommended indicators, can be found in Further information below.

Feature photo: Loneliness NZ.

New study exposes the reality of tertiary students’ mental health

Review: Today the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) published the study: “Kei te Pai? Report on Student Mental Health in Aotearoa”, which was based on an opt-in survey of 1,762 tertiary students from across New Zealand. According to the NZUSA: “Adjusting to tertiary study, feelings of loneliness and academic anxiety have been identified as major triggering factors of depression, stress and anxiety amongst students.”

The study looked at 23 possible triggering factors of depression, stress and anxiety and correlated them against each students psychological distress, as measured by their Kessler score.  The stand-out major triggering factor was ‘feeling of loneliness’ with a correlation of 58%.  The other 22 triggering factors had correlations between 12% and 42%. The top ten triggering factors are shown in the following diagram.

Bar chart showing correlation of psychological distress with triggers of depression, stress and anxiety

Furthermore, the study examined the relationship between psychological distress (as measured by the Kessler score) and how many people can be relied upon in difficult times of life – a measure of meaningful connections. The study showed that participants psychological distress “decreased steadily as they thought they had more people to rely on.”

According to the study: “This finding strongly confirms that the number of people that the students think they can rely on in difficult times of their lives could be a strong predictor of their psychological distress.” In other words, you are less like to have psychological distress if you have more meaningful connections.

Feature photo: Cover page of new study. NZUSA.

Former ‘Big Pharma’ boss’ gives his advice for living a long life

Review: Today former ‘Big Pharma’ boss Doug Wilson answered 12 questions in the NZ Herald to give his best tips in his guidebook Aging For Beginners.

He answers that the most important things you can do to live a long and healthy life are: 1. exercise; 2. diet; and 3. socialisation.  In particular, he explains the importance of socialisation: “Loneliness is one of the biggest causes of depression and early death.”

Feature photo: Doug Wilson says exercise and diet are two of the keys to improving your chances of living longer.  Photo supplied to NZ Herald.

Incorporating loneliness and social connection into the Treasury Living Standards Framework

Loneliness NZ heart logo

Media release: Today Loneliness NZ provided a contribution to the NZ Treasury Living Standards Framework.

By way of background, the Government budget 2019 will be different to all previous budgets.  In addition to considering financial benefit and costs (i.e. Financial Capital), the budget 2019 will be based more broadly around the Living Standards Framework, which takes account of four types of Capital: Physical and Financial Capital, Natural Capital, Human Capital and Social Capital.

In February 2018, the Treasuring released four ‘discussion documents’ on the Living Standards Framework (see Further information below). Our response to these discussion papers focused on the Social Capital discussion paper, but also had implications for Human Capital and the Living Standards Framework in general.

The discussion papers were quite technical in nature, with economics terminology.  To address the issues in the discussion papers, our contribution was equally technical. Our contribution needs to be read in conjunction with the Treasury discussion papers.

General feedback on the Living Standards Framework

The key points raised in our contribution of broader relevance to the Living Standards Framework and Human Capital are as follows:

  • There are four primary social indicators driving wellbeing. We highlight the work of Stats NZ that has shown there are four primary indicators driving wellbeing in New Zealand. We do not believe any of these indicators are currently proposed in the Living Standards Framework.
  • Social connection is important to public policy. We highlight twelve important public policy issues that are associated with social connection. As a consequence, we believe social connectedness indicators need to be in the Living Standards Framework.
  • Social health is a cause of physical and mental health. We provide extensive references on this causal relationship, which is relevant to the relationship between Human Capital and Social Capital.
Why is this contribution important?
The draft Living Standards Framework, which is a wellbeing framework, does not include any social connectedness indicators, and does not propose to monetise any Social Capital indicators. The result of this draft is that Government policy will be unable to capture the benefits of social connectedness and costs of social disconnectedness (e.g. social isolation of the elderly). Further, the draft Living Standards Framework – if left unchanged – would imply that the Government has little interest in individual social wellbeing.

Feedback on the Social Capital discussion paper

An overview of what is included in our contribution is as follows:

  • Framing of Private Social Capital and Public Social Capital.
  • The consideration of an implicit assumption in the Discussion Paper.
  • The need for social connections indicators within the Living Standards Framework.
  • The reasons social connectedness indicators should be part of Social Capital.
  • A redefinition of Social Capital.
  • The consideration of what social connectedness indicators be within Social Capital, based on a detailed piece of work by Stats NZ.
  • The importance of an indicator around “not feeling lonely”.
  • Response on the three points where Treasury asked for specific feedback, including twelve important examples of the relation between public policy issues and social connection.

A brief overview of our recommendations are:

  1. There needs to be social connectedness indicators in Social Capital.
  2. The definition of Social Capital be redefined to including Public and Private Social Capital [however, Treasury has subsequently explained how individual wellbeing fits into the Framework – without needing to redefine Social Capital to include Private Social Capital].
  3. One of the social connectedness indicators should be not feeling lonely.
  4. The social connectedness indicators should be the primary measures of Social Capital.
  5. Social Capital be monetised [given the proposal at the time that the other three capitals be monetised].
It is important that our final recommendations, listed above, are read in the context of our full contribution (see Further information), which includes many national and international sourced references.
[How has the Treasury changed its view following this contribution]
Following the submission, the Treasury released for consultation a report by Conal Smith recommending the indicators in the Livings Standards Dashboard. The report did a great job explaining the complete Living Standards Framework which includes, in addition to the Four Capitals, a (current and future) wellbeing function.  The report proposed that the individual wellbeing function contain social connectedness indicators, including a loneliness indicator. Furthermore, it recommended a general health status indicator, which we had also highlighted is a primary driver of wellbeing.

Feature photo: Loneliness NZ

Why Gen Z are the loneliest generation of adults

Review: Today Social media presenter Aziz Al-Sa’afin spoke to Duncan Garner of Newshub about how Gen Z (adults aged 18-22) – who have used the internet since a young age – are the most lonely generation, according to a US study by Cigna. The radio participants speculated that it is directly related to Gen Z being on social media instead of being out interacting personally with others.

On the other hand, the report found that social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; but those “individuals who are less lonely are more likely to have regular in-person interactions, are in good overall physical and mental health, have found a balance in their daily activities, and are employed.”

Feature photo: Aziz Al-Sa’afin during the interview. Newshub.

Loneliness is frequently an early warning sign of mental health issues

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Media Release:  Today Cathy Comber and Dr Spencer Scoular – representing Loneliness NZ – read out a prepared statement to the panel of the Government inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction – at the ‘meet the panel’ session held at Auckland City Hospital.  The statement is shown below.

8 May 2018

Statement – Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction


We represent the recently formed Loneliness New Zealand Charitable Trust.

We believe that conquering loneliness in New Zealand is critical to mental health.  By conquering loneliness all New Zealanders will have a stronger chance to live well, stay well, and get well.

However loneliness is not well understood in our country – it is a very complex issue. Little is known on the depth and breadth of loneliness, and how to address its root causes. Loneliness and its relationship to mental health is sometimes misunderstood. Until now, New Zealand has not had a national focus on loneliness.

We see that it is important to:

  • Give all New Zealanders a focus on conquering loneliness.
  • Support those already experiencing loneliness in their lives.
  • Upskill people in ways to prevent themselves and others becoming lonely.

Key Facts

We would like to highlight some key facts on Loneliness.

  • The lack of social connectedness is a key contributor to the onset of mental health issues.

Mental health clinicians frequently assume that loss of social connectedness is a consequence of mental illness.  However, recent NZ research shows there is a three times stronger relationship that lack of social connectedness is followed a year later by psychological distress; than psychological distress is followed a year later by lack of social connectedness.

In other words, poor social health is a significant cause of poor mental health. The corollary is that good social health provides a preventative measure for mental health – and – poor social health (e.g. loneliness) provides a point of early intervention before more serious mental health issues develop.

  • Loneliness is widespread in New Zealand.

Statistical data shows  that in the last four weeks more than 650,000 Kiwis are likely to have felt lonely.

  • Loneliness is rising rapidly in New Zealand.

Between 2014 and 2016 the number of Kiwis aged 15+ who felt lonely most or all of the time increased by 98,000 (or 70%).

This helps to explain the spike in demand for mental health services.

  • While we are not minimizing the critical importance of addressing loneliness and social isolation amongst the elderly, loneliness in not simply a senior’s issue.

About 80% of Kiwis aged 15+ who are lonely are under the age of 65.

  • Loneliness is most prevalent in our most vulnerable groups in society.

The highest prevalence (in descending order) are:

disabled, recent immigrants, low income households, unemployed, single parents, rural South Island, seniors aged 75+, adults not in the labour force, and young adults aged 15-24.

Young adults aged 15-24 are the largest lonely age group accounting for almost a quarter (23%) of those who are lonely.

  • We support the Inquiry in building a positive mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders.

Not feeling lonely is statistically one of the four key aspects of wellbeing in New Zealand.

Stats NZ has shown that wellbeing in New Zealand is mostly explained by four social variables:

* enjoying very good general health;

* having at least enough money to meet every day needs;

* having no major problems in the housing where you are living; and

* not feeling lonely in the last four weeks.

Loneliness and Mental Health in New Zealand

  • Loneliness is frequently a common symptom and early warning sign of mental health issues, including depression, paranoia, and suicidal tendencies. The need to address loneliness is an unmet need in New Zealand’s health and response system.
  • By targeting loneliness it is possible to prevent and provide early intervention in mental health issues.
  • Prevention and early treatment of mental health issues avoids more serious and costly treatment and reduces the pressure on specialist services.

Further information

Two of the trustees (Cathy Comber and Dr Spencer Scoular) would be happy to elaborate on this statement, including references, if required.

Growing concern as more Kiwis taking anti-depressants than ever before

Review: Today Seven Sharp reported on the dramatic increase the use of anti-depressants, which has increased by 65% between 2006 and 2016. We note that this statistic aligns with the increase in the levels of those feeling lonely most/all of the time, which increased by 60% between 2014 and 2016.

The growth of anti-depressants is partly a result of the stretched mental health sector, where it is easier to prescribe anti-depressants than get access to counselling.  The problem, however, is that users are finding it difficult to wean themselves off anti-depressants – and so are staying on them for longer than is ideal.

Feature photo:  Hillary Barry and Jeremy Wells of Seven Sharp.  TVNZ.

Lonely New Zealand: A third of elderly spend their days alone

Review: Today’s newspaper article by Nicholas Jones of the NZ Herald addresses social isolation among older adults, based on InterRAI data for 2017 – which was compiled and released to the Herald on Sunday. The new data showed an increase in those reporting feelings of loneliness from 21% in the prior four years (see our summary of Jamieson et al. 2018) to 22% in the last year.

Consistent with the data, Age Concern’s Auckland office is getting more than 10 visiting service referrals per week and needs volunteers. After a rise in suicide among Older Adults, the Southern DHB consulted academics and identified risk factors to look out for, which included whether an Older Adult was left alone for more than eight hours a day.

Feature photo: Cornelis van der Zeyden and Anne Blythe were paired by Age Concern’s visiting service. Michael Craig

Aged-care providers battle loneliness as New Zealand population ages

Review:  Today’s newspaper article by Sarah Harris of the NZ Herald highlights the loneliness issues facing seniors.  Dr Hamish Jamieson refers to his recent research using four years of InterRAI data (see our review of Jamieson et al. 2018), the Minister for Seniors Tracey Martin is seeking feedback around the country before formulating an updated Aging Strategy that caters better for diverse ethnicities, and Age Concern discuss the expected increase in demand. Some novel solutions to loneliness are being rolled out.  The pilot program at Care Village in Rotorua has Older Adults living together, and the Baby Buddies program is linking Older Adults with mothers and their babies.

 There is a ‘Cycling without Age’ initiative, where volunteers offer free bike rides to elderly people, and an origami pen pal project, where Japanese Older Adults send origami to New Zealand Older Adults and in return the New Zealanders send them handmade cards. According to Age Concern, the solutions do not have to be groundbreaking.  For example, giving lessons in texting and Skype to help Older Adults stay connected with family members living elsewhere. As another example, providing a safe place where Older Adults can regularly meet.

Feature photo: Michael Craig