Australia is in the midst of a loneliness crisis, with many in our population – particularly older Australians – experiencing a deficit of social connection. That is, they do not enjoy sufficient meaningful relationships in their lives to sustain and nurture them, particularly through difficult times.
Australians are increasingly time poor with many households having all adults in employment, and less time for community engagement and neighbourhood connection. Fewer people know, and interact with, their neighbours and are part of community groups. The circle of people we feel we can turn to when the chips are down is shrinking in all age groups.
In our 70th year Relationships Australia will be turning our attention to an area we believe needs a broader community debate and government policy focus – loneliness.
As an active partner in the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, Relationships Australia has been engaged in a growing community discussion on loneliness over the past few years.
Through our Neighbour Day campaign we have been working to provide pathways for neighbours to connect, particularly with their older and community members experiencing vulnerability.
We will be pursuing solutions to the problem of loneliness through new research projects, and policy and stakeholder collaborations.
We hope to develop our understanding of the underlying causes of loneliness and work with others to identify new workable and practical solutions that might help address this community-wide issue.
Who we are
This year marks 70 years since Relationships Australia had its beginnings in the aftermath of World War II. In 1948, Relationships Australia started out as the Marriage Guidance Council, a volunteer-based counselling service formed to respond to the rising need of re-united couples and families struggling to readjust to post-war life.
70 years later, Relationships Australia works with children, adults, families and communities throughout the country. Our counselling, family dispute resolution and mediation services, family violence prevention and mental health services are funded by the Commonwealth Government with other family and community support services funded by state and territory governments and others.
We are an Australian, community-based, not-for-profit organisation with no religious affiliations. Our services are for all members of the community, regardless of religious belief, age, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle choice, cultural background or economic circumstances.
We are a federation of service providers in each Australian state and territory, and have a national office based in Canberra.
This year we welcomed a three-year extension of funding for our family law services, extending our contracts with the Attorney-General’s Department out to 2022. This extension will allow the Government sufficient time to consider the findings of the Australian Law Reform Commission review into the family law system, due in early 2019.
The Department of Social Services also extended Family and Relationship Support funding for a further year while they review how families are best supported to gain the best possible outcomes. We welcome the extension of funding and the invitation to participate in the review of the Families and Communities Programme.
Relationships Australia organised and hosted a two-day restorative practice workshop in Canberra in late February 2018, with guest speakers from the UK and New Zealand. Over 120 participants attended the workshop and provided very positive feedback. Most Relationships Australia organisations were represented at the workshop, along with a wide range of participants from academia, the education, justice and community sectors, and government.
Key policy engagements
The Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department is working with the state and territories and the sector to develop a National Framework for Elder Abuse. We are working with the department on this, and we welcome their announcement of a trial to see what pathways are most effective to prevent and respond to elder abuse. Relationships Australia continues to strongly advocate for funded services to work with families with an ageing relative, to help them reduce conflict and build their capacity to deal with ageing related issues such as grief and loss, end of life care, retirement and inheritance, family violence and elder abuse.
Following the two-day workshop in Canberra, Relationships Australia continued our participation in national discussion on how restorative practices can achieve greater benefits for vulnerable people. We follow with interest at a model in West Adelaide where Relationships Australia South Australia has joined with the South Australian Government in using a restorative practice framework for working with families experiencing vulnerability and risk.
Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
This year, the National Office continued to advocate for people who have been affected by institutional child sexual abuse. We made submissions to improve legislation that established a National Redress Scheme, and developed policy that could be used to increase the safety and wellbeing of children accessing our services across Australia.
The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory
During 2017-18, Relationships Australia Northern Territory provided free support services to children, young people, their families and others impacted by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. Services Included trauma-informed and culturally appropriate support, information on how to engage with the Royal Commission, and what to expect from the enquiry process. Face to face and telephone counselling were provided by qualified counsellors to those directly affected as well as to their families. , Support was provided on legal processes, including referrals to legal and advocacy services. Mentoring by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural advisors, and healing camps were conducted on Country.
Family violence remains a matter of considerable concern across Australia. Earlier this year, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published a report, Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia. The findings of the report drew from a compilation of prevalence data indicating that, on average, one woman a week and one man a month is killed by a current or former partner. The report identified particular groups as being most at risk of experiencing some form of violence or abuse: Indigenous women, young women, pregnant women, women with a disability, women experiencing financial hardship, and people who had witnessed abuse as children.
Tragically, despite considerable focus on family violence over recent years, from organisations like ours and from governments, Australians continue to be killed by those with whom they once may have had a loving relationship. Every day, Relationships Australia staff identify and support large percentages of our clients who are affected by family violence. We can be proud of the work that we do, as researchers, service providers and advocates to call out family violence, to support the survivors and to assist perpetrators to be accountable for changing their behaviours and adopt healthy ways to manage conflict to regulate their own emotions and to communicate. This is a long-term investment of time and expertise.
The Commonwealth Government has recently started consultation on the Fourth Action Plan 2019-2022 of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan) in partnership with state and territory governments. The Fourth Action Plan, due for release in 2019, is the final action plan of the National Plan. Relationships Australia will continue to support families affected by family violence as long as is needed.
This year we made a range of submissions to Commonwealth and state budget processes and government inquiries aimed at preventing Elder Abuse. We also made the following submissions:
- Submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission Review of the Family Law System.
- Submission to the Progress Report of the ACT Law Reform Advisory Council’s Restorative Practices Inquiry Canberra – becoming a restorative city.
- Commonwealth Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2017 and related bill.
- National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018 and National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Consequential Amendments)Bill 2018.
Key stakeholder engagements
We continue to feel privileged for our strong relationships with departmental staff, particularly in the Attorney-General’s and Social Services departments and with stakeholders in our traditional areas of work.
Over the past year we participated in a range of departmental consultations, including those convened for program redesign and outcome measurement, and to increase access to services for vulnerable groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients. We are also building relationships in areas of new interest to us as we look for more ways to support families to live well in their communities.
Our monthly survey continued to remain popular, generating interest from a wide range of people, media and academia. Key topics included loneliness and friendships, through to focussed issues such as organ donation, youth suicide and exposure to pornography.
Where you can find more information
For more information on the work that we do and you can visit Relationships Australia’s website at relationships.org.au or call us on 02 6162 9300.
Relationships Australia sees Neighbour Day as an ongoing opportunity to remind people about the importance of community connection, we believe that getting to know your neighbours is important because good relationships with others who live nearby transform communities.
Relationships Australia is responsible for Neighbour Day, a year round campaign to promote and support the importance of relationships in communities, Through Neighbour Day, we encourage people to connect with those who live in their neighbourhood.
Officially, we celebrate Neighbour Day on the last Sunday in March – in 2018 it was on 25 March – and this year we focused our campaign on encouraging all Australians to support children and young people in their neighbourhoods to help them feel included and safe.
We know that children thrive in an environment of supporting, caring relationships, and that having a whole community of care enables its members to truly flourish, most particularly its children. Research tells us that children who know their neighbours, are aware of somewhere safe to go when their parents are not at home, feel happier and safer in and around their homes.
Through our 2018 Neighbour Day campaign, we asked neighbourhoods across Australia asking them what they could do to provide a safe, child-friendly place where children are truly welcome and free to imagine, play, learn, navigate, negotiate, explore and create.
The National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) joined Neighbour Day in 2018 as a Very Neighbourly Organisation and got on board with our theme, providing a useful resource for neighbours of children and young people that was widely shared on our social media channels.
Snapshot : Neighbour Day 2018
In early March, the ACT Government launched Neighbour Day in the ACT in partnership with Relationships Australia. Special guest speakers included the ACT Minister for Community Services, Social Inclusion and Disability, Children and Youth - Rachel Stephen-Smith and the ACT Commissioner for Children and Young People Jodie Griffiths-Cook, with special guest koala Constable Kenny.
The national launch of Neighbour Day was hosted in the Northern Territory a week later by the Alice Springs community at Sadadeen Primary School, with the support of Relationships Australia and Neighbour Day Ambassador Natalie Ahmat of NITV/SBS television. The Alice Springs community was presented with the first Very Neighbourly Community award given their active engagement with Neighbour Day for many years.
In 2018, 3115 Neighbour Day events were promoted and hosted around Australia (remote, regional, suburbs and cities) by individual neighbours, community groups, businesses, in workplaces and by all levels of government – particularly local councils. The most popular events were morning and afternoon teas, BBQs, street parties and ‘bring and share’ food gatherings, with almost 50 per cent open to the public, and the balance of events by invitation. Others chose to leave calling or connection cards with messages of support and their contact details just in case their neighbour ever needs a hand.
Many supporters tell us that because Neighbour Day is a nationally recognised legitimate campaign it serves as a gentle and non-threatening reason for them to contact their neighbours. Event hosts surveyed post event (89 per cent) said Neighbour Day was a useful tool or mechanism to connect with their neighbours and 85 per cent indicating they would host an event again. The downloadable free resources were very popular as in previous years.
Of those who previously hosted a Neighbour Day event or took some neighbourly action, 90 percent told us that this resulted in ongoing connection throughout the year. The most popular forms of continued engagement were regular visits, checking in on neighbours, regular neighbourly get-togethers or joining a volunteer activity. There were also many other neighbourly activities ranging from a smile and a wave, through to one neighbour’s life literally being saved.
We believe that Neighbour Day is an effective and positive mechanism to raise awareness about the importance of social connection for individual and community health and wellbeing and as a catalyst for action. We are working to bring like-minded people, resources, and organisations, to grow stronger together, better-connected communities so that we can all live in places that are welcoming, kind and supportive.
The Relationships Australia National Research Network (the network) was formed in 2011 with the goal of supporting national research collaboration among Relationships Australia offices around the country to inform and improve client services. The network supports research and evaluation projects carried out within the federation and undertakes independent research on our behalf.
In 2017/18 there were more than 30 separate research projects underway within the federation. The majority are being undertaken in partnership with universities, including: Griffith University, University of Queensland, University of Sunshine Coast, Central Queensland University, Deakin University, University of New South Wales, Southern Cross University, La Trobe University, University of Technology Sydney, University of Melbourne, Victoria University, and Monash University.
These research projects are primarily designed to assess the process and outcome of a diverse spectrum of Relationships Australia services,including family violence prevention, loneliness, gambling, childhood trauma,family dispute resolution, family counselling, parent education, couples counselling, same-sex parents, fathering, Aboriginal services and social media.
Many of these projects have already resulted in publications in peer reviewed journals and many sector conference presentations. The findings also influence the design of models of practice within Relationships Australia organisations and more broadly in the Australian and international family service systems. Our significant research efforts are supported and driven by Relationships Australia as we strive to learn and improve services and outcomes for clients.
The Relationships Australia Family Dispute Resolution Outcomes Research Project
In 2018 the network continued to implement and manage a large and significant research project funded by the federation. This project is designed to generate evidence on the outcomes and efficacy of family dispute resolution services in both parenting and property disputes. The study employs a longitudinal survey design with quantitative data collection at multiple time points, to meet one of the project’s aims of assessing durability or outcomes achieved in family dispute resolution.
The first client survey was conducted between May and November 2017 with 1,800 participants who were recruited to the study and completed the Time 1 survey. Around 800 participants completed a second questionnaire three months after receiving the service. In addition to client surveys, the study design also incorporates semi-structured interviews with a sub-sample of participants to further investigate the positive outcome of experiences and perceptions of the dispute resolution process. This third and final stage has now commenced and will continue until November 2018.
The research team will analyse data for parenting and property clients separately, so that we can address research questions that are specific to each group. Preliminary results from the study which were reported at the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference in July 2018, show strong evidence for the efficacy of federation’s family dispute resolution services. In addition to the majority of clients reaching agreements on their parenting and property matters, significant improvements were found across a range of emotional and psychological measures including anxiety, parenting stress and adjustment to separation variables.
With the family law sector as a whole, and the community funded family law services in particular, under scrutiny as the federal government considers significant reform, it is vital that services are safe, effective and affordable. The federation’s Family Dispute Resolution Outcomes Research Project will provide crucial and timely data to inform this reform process.
Forming new friendships
Find and Connect
As a result of growing up in out-of-home ‘care’, many Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants are at higher risk of social isolation and loneliness, and may experience difficulties in forming relationships in their adult life.
Relationships Australia WA provides a Find and Connect service, providing long term specialist support and social connection for Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants.
The service is based at Lanterns House, a name chosen by clients, providing a welcoming drop-in space and family atmosphere.
With the service now attended by an increasing number of people, Lanterns House recently relocated from West Leederville to Belmont in order to provide a more accessible and comfortable space for social gatherings.
For these people, who have previously been socially isolated, Lanterns House often provides an opportunity to speak to another person face to face, rather than over the phone.
Find and Connect client Errol said from day one he knew he was in the right place when he visited Lanterns House. “It just had that family atmosphere that I never had,” he said.
The program organises weekly therapeutic social activities for clients, followed by a morning tea or lunch. Past sessions have included Tai Chi, Reiki, drumbeat and mindfulness.
In order to further increase the opportunity for social connection for our Find and Connect clients, a monthly community outing is arranged, which has helped reduce previously held social anxieties.
Thanks to these regular social gatherings new friendships have been formed, and continue to flourish, outside the environment of Lanterns House.
Another important role of Find and Connect WA is supporting family searches and reunion assistance, which aids with the sense of identity and connectedness.
In March, a professional genealogist ran a six session workshop called ‘Discover Your Family History’, helping clients put together a map of their family, learning more about their ancestors and the missing information about their past.
You can watch a video about our Find and Connect services in Western Australia below.
Find and Connect WA is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services.
Connecting with Others in Older Age
Connecting with Others in Older Age is a research partnership between Relationships Australia Victoria and Swinburne University.
The project, supported by a grant from the Iverson Health Innovations Research Institute, is investigating the role that digital platforms can play in preventing and addressing loneliness in older adults between the ages of 65 and 75.
Drawing on the research, an interactive, multimedia-rich prototype website is being developed using a broad approach of active ageing and wellbeing, to help older people to plan for retirement and stay connected and purposeful from the outset of their journey, through retirement.
By taking a life course approach to ageing well, it will offer interactive information and wellbeing checkups, as well as tips and strategies for planning ahead. It will also provide resources for those experiencing, or at risk of, undesired social isolation and loneliness.
A ‘salutogenic’ (or a stress and coping model) approach will be adopted that will aim to integrate an understanding of the processes that move people towards, or keep people at, the health-ease pole as opposed to the disease or pathogenic pole.
This approach also seeks to take into account the way in which people make sense of the world, use the required resources to respond to it, and feel that these responses are meaningful and make sense emotionally.
Implementing a flipped health care approach using consumer consultations, a series of focus groups have been conducted with members of the target age group to gain insight into their experiences in transitioning into and through retirement. The opinions and preferences of the focus group participants will inform the website’s structure, design and content.
Community Based Mental Health Care Service
Improving mental health through focused therapies and support is proving valuable for Tasmanians accessing the Community Based Mental Health Care Service.
The Community Based Mental Health Care Service (CBMHCS) supports people of all ages experiencing mild to moderate mental health concerns.
Funded by Primary Health Tasmania, the service is accessed via a referral from a person’s GP, psychiatrist or paediatrician, with ongoing communication between CBMHCS and the referrer being an important aspect of the program.
In order to best meet a client’s needs, flexibility in the delivery of CBMHCS is key. In addition to providing help at our Head Office located in New Town, outreach sessions at Bridgewater and Oatlands operate at high demand, allowing for more communities to access the service.
Our clients face a number of difficulties and mental health challenges and diagnoses of depression and anxiety are commonly noted.
Indeed, Tasmania-wide, the estimated population prevalence of these disorders is significant. The Tasmanian Population Health Survey (2016) revealed that 30 per cent of adult Tasmanians reported having a past or present diagnosis of anxiety or depression1 .
We recognise that the nature of anxiety and depression can lead people to experience feelings of isolation – either by feeling alone in their mental health struggle, or by physically and emotionally withdrawing and distancing themselves from the people around them.
A sense of loneliness and isolation can emerge, even for those who have previously drawn strength and happiness from being with others.
Clients in our CBMHCS service show strength and resilience in facing these challenges and in seeking help to improve their wellbeing.
By building connections with friends, family and community, it is possible to reduce loneliness and associated hopelessness that can be pervasive when experiencing mental health challenges.
1.Department of Health and Human Services Tasmania 2016, Report on the Tasmanian Population Health Survey 2016, Hobart.
Identity, belonging and bridging the gap between the cultures
When children are adopted from one country to another, they lose everything they know - their previous caregiver/s and/or family, their familiar environments, and the sights, smells, and feel of their home countries.
As children’s capacity for learning is strongly connected to their personal, psychological, and social well-being, our Post Adoption Support Services Mentor and Adoptee Group (MAG) supports adopted children aged seven to 17 years learn and adjust to their new world.
Beginning in 2010, MAG has grown and evolved along with the adopted children. In this time, MAG has engaged a total of 150 young people and 28 volunteer mentors, and have held 53 group sessions.
The MAG activities are tailored to developmental needs and interests of each child.Activities include art therapy workshops, indoor rock climbing, cooking, and mindfulness sessions, as well as opportunities for children to learn about their countries of birth and talk about their adoption experiences.
Importantly, MAG activities create a place to notice young people’s issues and concerns to be noticed and, where needed, link them up with other support services. Peer support is central to this program’s success, as the young adoptees forge valuable connections, not only with each other but also with older local and inter-country adoptees.
As the children and families who participate in MAG activities continue to shape and influence the design of the program, MAG has become an effective way for the adopted children to learn about and flourish in their new community.
“Hola Carlos & Hola Lucia.”
Carlos came to Australia when he was adopted from Chile at age 7. His world had completely changed. While he was competent in expressing himself in Spanish, he did not have any English language skills. Despite every effort of his adoptive parents to help him make sense of this life-altering transition, his communication difficulties meant he struggled to understand what was happening.
A little over a year ago, one MAG volunteer, Lucia, who is from Chile and fluent in both Spanish and English, paired with Carlos to assist him during activities. As Lucia approached Carlos, she greeted him in Spanish with a cheerful, “Hola.” His eyes lit up with surprise, and he happily started to converse in Spanish to her. It was obvious that the two clicked, and Carlos felt more in control of his environment when he could communicate easily.
Communication is a vital tool for engaging with one another. With Lucia’s support, Carlos’s first experience with a MAG activity was a positive one. While he no longer has difficulty speaking English, his connection to his birth country and language is important to him and, through continuing to talk to Lucia in Spanish, we have been able to provide a space for that special connection to be maintained.
The South Australian Department for Education and Child Development has contributed funds towards this program.
For further information about the service, please visit: www.rasa.org.au/services/couples-families/post-adoption-support-services-pass
Elder Abuse Prevention and Support Services
Elder abuse can be defined as ‘a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person’. It can take various forms such as physical, psychological or emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect.
There is an increasing awareness throughout Australia of the high prevalence of elder abuse, an issue that has been gaining attention both at state and Commonwealth government levels.
At Relationships Australia, we identified various forms of elder abuse in our casework with families participating in a twelve-month national pilot of elder relationship services in six locations, including one in Brisbane’s Moreton Bay area. We have been advocating on elder issues, including elder abuse, following the findings that were revealed in our pilot evaluation report.
In the past 24 months, state and territory governments are increasingly responding to elder abuse through a number of initiatives.
In 2018, Relationships Australia Queensland launched the Elder Abuse Prevention and Support Service, funded by the Queensland Government.
The service is a client-centred service model, delivered in five locations across the state: in Rockhampton, Gladstone, Mackay, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast. It incorporates the learnings from the national pilot and the skills and experience of our professional workforce in delivering services to vulnerable families.
The service allows the older person access, by phone or in person, to a dedicated case manager who will work to develop an individualised case plan and follow the older person’s progress through various supports provided to meet their needs for safety, protection, quality care and, where possible, functional relationships with key people in their lives.
Case managers can also facilitate referral to our Legal Advice and Information Service, provided by our partnered community legal centres, to enable older people to access confidential and professional legal advice to assist them in making decisions regarding their individual circumstances.
Another key component of the service is to educate and inform communities about elder abuse, including the risk factors, the signs and impacts of elder abuse, and where to seek help when abuse or neglect is identified. The service aims to prevent elder abuse through empowerment and knowledge of protective actions that older people can put in place to improve their safety.
Kangaroos and buffalos - how we connect and support our clients
Relationships Australia Northern Territory’s Find and Connect Support Service provides case management, advocacy, counselling, records searching and family tracing to people affected by institutional care prior to 1990.
The service provides specialised trauma-informed support to people who identify as Forgotten Australians, the Stolen Generations and Former Child Migrants.
Our Northern Territory service is different from those run in other states and territories as the majority of our clients choose to live a rural, remote or isolated lifestyle.
Those of our clients who choose not to attend our office are offered support by telephone. This isolated lifestyle can encourage withdrawal from the community, and as our clients age, fear and loneliness can impact on their lives and impair their health and wellbeing.
We help clients to develop a range of different strategies to manage the negative aspects of living in isolation. These strategies take into account physical remoteness, the different ways clients live and their financial circumstances.
We encourage clients to engage in social activities and/or support groups where people are active participants, and foster the inclusion of animals into clients’ lifestyles.
These animals (cats, dogs, kangaroos and even buffalos) provide great comfort and companionship to clients and we welcome domestic pets into our offices and to social events to encourage client participation, understanding and acceptance.
Online social interaction is also used with clients to improve social inclusion and reduce their feelings of loneliness. Online interaction is particularly meaningful when clients are frail or other life changes start to impact their quality of life.
Considering the uniqueness and physical isolation of our clients, we have successfully implemented and delivered a flexible, trauma-informed and inclusive therapeutic approach to deliver a quality state wide service.
Touchstone - Adolescent Family Therapy and Mediation Service
Over the past year, more than 420 people have been assisted by the Touchstone Adolescent Family Therapy Mediation Service run by Relationships Australia New South Wales.
Adolescents and their families have been supported by dedicated, skilled family therapists to address complex and often life-threatening issues such as drug and alcohol misuse, family conflict, self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression and the devastating impacts of bullying – especially cyber bullying.
Underlying most of these issues is a consistent theme of loneliness and social isolation.
Today’s young people appear more ‘connected’ through social media. While Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook provide online ‘cyber friends’, alongside the potential to bully and shame, they also fail to deliver real relationships. Adolescents often feel they are ‘observing’ others having fun, resulting in them feeling more isolated.
Touchstone sees many families where adolescents present with the symptoms of loneliness, with self-harming and suicidal ideation are often the result of lost hope in a future. Through our services, we support and empower families and adolescents to make changes that address the causes of their loneliness.
In the past year, our Touchstone therapists have:
- run healthy relationships seminars at Albion Park High School for 800 students, providing resources and referrals for support services
- attended Rainbow League groups to support LGBTIQ young people
- run seminars for 100 refugees/new arrivals at the Multi-Cultural Youth Conference
- run seminars attended by 130 students at Smith’s Hill High School on how to access help and how to protect and reconsider cyber friendships and develop healthy relationships
- provided a chill out area at the Sundown Festival by the Lake where young people could gather and talk with the team.