As humans we are, by our very nature, social. Most of us thrive on building and maintaining positive relationships with one another for care, comfort and support. However, for growing numbers in society, loneliness is having detrimental effects on our health and wellbeing.
In the United Kingdom a study commissioned by the Red Cross and Co-Op in 2017 found that on average nine million people report feeling lonely often or all of the time (British Red Cross, Co-Op, 2017). This equates to one in five of the adult population and the figure is rising.
Feelings of loneliness can be experienced by anyone, and are caused by a range of different factors, but in order to comprehend the concept we need to identify what we mean by the term. The dictionary defines it as ‘being unhappy as a result of solitude’. What is important to remember is that loneliness is not necessarily about being alone. It is strongly linked to social isolation and whilst feelings of loneliness will often come as a result of being isolated, the two are not the same.
Isolation is often an objective measure of the number of contacts a person has and relates to the quality of their relationships. Whilst some people appear to be isolated, they may choose to have a small circle of friends or be comfortable on their own. In contrast, loneliness is a state of mind that relates to the gap a person feels between their desired level of social connections and what they have in reality. You can feel lonely in a room full of people, but you will not be alone.
In a study conducted by the Office for National Statistics, those who describe feeling lonely often have several similar characteristics and circumstances. These can include being unemployed, having poor mental or physical health, a disability, or having care responsibilities. It is often as a result of a life event, such as a bereavement, change of location, becoming a carer, or having a new baby. Increasing numbers of younger people are reporting feeling lonely, and it often affects women more than men (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 2018).
The long term effects can be harmful to our health, research shows that a lack of regular social connections can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be worse for you than obesity. Left unresolved, it can lead to depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and can increase the decline of people who live with dementia.
The Government has described loneliness as ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’. In response, Tracey Crouch was appointed as the world’s first ‘Minister for Loneliness’ in early 2018. Although she subsequently left the position, her department published a loneliness strategy later in the year. The strategy identifies and outlines key aims and objectives to combat the issue, many of which focus on building active and healthy communities.
For service providers and practitioners, the concept can be very complex and deeply personal, but can be supported by wider environmental factors and community capacity. Having good infrastructure can encourage social networks and ensuring that transport is accessible can support those who may otherwise stay at home.
In a previous blog, Alexandra Hoskyn noted that the simple act of being spoken to and acknowledged can make a huge difference to a person who is feeling lonely, no matter what their age or circumstance. As a result of her own experiences, she set up the Chatty Café scheme which brings people together by encouraging them to simply sit and have a conversation.
Building social networks and friendships does not only have a positive effect on reducing the health impacts of loneliness, it supports people, particularly those who are older, recover when they fall ill. Reaching out to those who may be socially excluded or have a disability can have a big impact on their wellbeing.
Individuals can strengthen their communities by talking to neighbours, joining clubs, making new friends and volunteering. This will ensure our society becomes more welcoming for all, regardless of age, abilities or care and support needs (McClure B, 2015). While there is no quick solution to achieving a shift in our culture, we should look to encourage opportunities that promote our social wellbeing, and that of those around us.