Bunbury is WA’s regional hub for people living alone as mental health issues were laid bare in the census

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More than one in three homes in Western Australia’s second-largest city are occupied by a single person, as the region struggles with housing affordability and a mental health crisis.

The latest census found that 34% of households in Bunbury, a port town about 170 miles south of the state capital, were single-person households on census night, easily eclipsing national and state averages.

Psychologists believe there is a strong link between social isolation and poor mental and physical health outcomes, with social connection being crucial for those who live alone.

Margaret Clayton has lived alone in Bunbury for seven years and said it can be daunting living with a partner.

“You’re always used to your husband or your wife… so you’re on your own, you have to alternate your lifestyle,” she said.

A sign urging people to live in Bunbury – a place that promises to add ‘more life to work-life balance’.(ABC Southwest: Alastair Kirkby)

Ms. Clayton keeps herself busy by exercising and participating in the many activities at her local community center for seniors.

“I can’t stay home all day watching TV, twiddling my thumbs because, I think, that’s where the depression comes in,” she said.

Although not a choice for many, living alone can have detrimental effects on the mental health of those who do not seek support.

Australian Psychological Society President Tamara Cavenett said people are social creatures who crave connection, belonging and a sense of community.

“By living alone, people increase the likelihood of prolonged periods of isolation and loneliness, which can increase anxiety, depression and stress and be extremely detrimental to your overall health and mental well-being,” she said.

“There are benefits to living alone, but if you do, try to keep in touch with friends and family or seek out local community groups to foster connection there.”

human need for connection

Bunbury psychologist Patricia Alpiste said all humans have a biological need to connect.

“It can be a state of stress which can then cause physical problems. So lonely people, for example, are more likely to have health problems.”

A built city taken from a distance across a blue ocean
More Bunbury residents were aged 60 or over compared to the WA average.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Bev Buck ran the Bunbury Geographer Seniors and Community Center for 12 years and said she noticed more members living alone.

She suggested that the increase in the number of one-person households could be due to people staying in their own homes longer in old age.

“We are trying to keep people at home longer [and out of aged care],” she says.

Figures showed that 28.3% of Bunbury residents were aged 60 or over, compared to just 21.8% in WA as a whole.

Part of the local council’s aged care strategy was to focus on ‘aging in place’, which aims to help older people stay at home independently.

Mental health services under pressure

Ms Alpiste said she has also seen an increase in demand for mental health services in the city.

A sunrise scene over an industrial area
Bunbury is a port town about 170 kilometers south of Perth.(ABC Southwest: Anthony Pancia)

The census found Bunbury had one of the worst mental health outcomes in WA, with one in 10 people reporting having a mental illness.

“Lately there has been an increase in the need for people to see a psychologist,” Ms Alpiste said.

“Most psychologists around here are very full, they have a waiting list. Some don’t even take new people.

“There is definitely an increase in the need for psychological support.”

Ms Alpiste said while there were other mental health support services available in Bunbury, including social workers and counsellors, they were also very busy.

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