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We need to talk about loneliness

ClareCummingsphotoLoneliness can affect anyone and is something everyone can identify with. For some people, it is an overwhelming experience, damaging their mental and physical health. If we’re concerned about having strong, well and active communities, loneliness is something we need to think about.

Loneliness tends to be talked about as ‘social isolation’, making it sound scientific and removing the personal and emotional connotations of what loneliness really is. But social isolation isn’t the same. Social isolation refers to a lack of contact with others and a limited social network, whereas loneliness is about the quality of our relationships which determine whether we feel like we belong and are supported by others.

Why is this a public matter? Do we really need interventions and initiatives on loneliness?  Maybe we do. Recently, loneliness has received a lot more attention thanks partly to publications by organisations, such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which highlight the connections between loneliness and health. Loneliness can lead people to develop self-destructive habits, such as over-eating or heavy drinking and it affects the immune and cardio-vascular systems. Loneliness can also cause difficulty sleeping which is damaging to metabolic, neural and hormonal regulations.

Of course, loneliness is also damaging to mental health as people who are lonely are less likely to seek emotional support and more likely to experience depression. There is even evidence suggesting that people who are lonely are more than twice as likely as non-lonely people to develop late-life Alzheimer’s disease. So addressing loneliness should certainly be considered a public health issue.

At Cles I’ve been working a lot on health and wellbeing recently and the importance of having a good social network comes up time and again as being essential for a person’s wellbeing. It’s not only important for mental health; feeling connected to others helps to motivate someone to make changes to their lifestyle too, such as eating more healthily or becoming involved in their community. As communities are less place-based, as families are increasingly dispersed and as people are living alone for longer, it’s not surprising that Age Concern and Help the Aged estimate that over 1 million people aged over 65 often or always feel lonely.

What does this mean for the communities and places we live in? In the face of severe cuts to public spending, fewer public services and a struggling voluntary sector, having cohesive and active communities is particularly important. The idea of co-production (where public services are designed and delivered by professionals, service users and communities working together) is increasingly popular. However, this requires individuals to know their neighbours, be engaged in local organisations and take an interest in the wellbeing of others around them. This emerges quite naturally in some places but in others it needs encouragement.

A problem which is about a lack of connections needs a connected response. Individuals, the voluntary and community sector, local government and national government can all play a part. The Campaign to End Loneliness calls for government to focus on increasing pensioner incomes, for housing policy to facilitate people to stay connected to their community, for public health strategies to recognise the links between loneliness and health, and for technology to be used to strengthen connections rather than promote isolation.

Initiatives to tackle loneliness are being developed, such as Manchester’s Valuing Older People which aims to help older people stay connected to services and their community. We need more things like this, which bring agencies and organisations together to build more connected places where people feel happier and healthier because they feel like they belong.

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