What can we do about loneliness?
Millions of us are struggling with isolation – even when we’re around other people. These are our big solutions
One in five of us is lonely
Many of us enjoy being alone sometimes. But hardly anyone likes feeling lonely. And while there are more ways than ever to communicate with each other, one in five of us [PDF] has felt lonely in the past year. That’s 9 million people in the UK.
It’s also a puzzle that some life events many of us share ‒ leaving home, having a baby, moving to a new area, losing loved ones ‒ are also among the biggest triggers for loneliness.
In 2015, the British Red Cross set out to understand why so many of us feel lonely. Our first research reports have contributed to an ongoing conversation about the causes and solutions to loneliness in our society.
Loneliness is a potent force
Loneliness is a crisis causing untold misery, and, ultimately, unnecessary strain on hard-pressed statutory services. What loneliness ‘means’ for people is difficult to define. Lonely people can feel tired and anxious. They can lose confidence. Daily routines and socialising can become difficult.
Many lonely people describe feeling alone, trapped, without purpose and frustrated. Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that loneliness can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is likely to increase your risk of death by 29 per cent. In the most serious cases, loneliness can cause thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
People of any age, gender or race can feel lonely
A huge survey in 2018 by the BBC and Wellcome Collection found that young people (18-24) feel the loneliest. Age UK has found that over half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone.
Our work with refugees and asylum seekers showed that people who have escaped potentially life-threatening situations or conflict to seek safety and stability in the UK are often isolated when they arrive. This can be due to language barriers, very low income and a lack of social connections.
Loneliness is often experienced when life changes. Long-term illness, bereavement, divorce, moving home or becoming a parent can sever ties in communities and force people into isolation.
Imagine how you might feel not knowing anyone in a new town. Or losing your job and not having any reason to get up in the morning. Or losing the people under your care.
Psychologically, socially and even economically, loneliness is one of the biggest public health crises of our times. One recent study found that disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year.
The British Red Cross is tackling loneliness
We know that a friendly face and a helping hand can make a big difference.
In 2015, we began our partnership with Co-op. Like us, Co-op members recognised the urgency of this issue – and were determined to help. Through our innovative Connecting Communities service, we’ve used a form of ‘social prescribing’ to help nearly 12,000 people in almost 40 UK locations to rebuild self-confidence and forge new connections in their community.
Led by the NHS, social prescribing is a way of enabling GPs, nurses and other health and care professionals to encourage and support people to access a range of local, non-clinical services by referring people to a ‘link worker’. The impact has been undeniable, with three-quarters of our service users seeing a reduction in loneliness and an increase in well-being following our support.
With such powerful effects for our service users, we wanted to push this agenda further and build on the evidence base that we started with our report Trapped in a Bubble [PDF], which unpicked the scale and triggers of loneliness.
We explored what works to help people overcome loneliness – and used this to successfully call for the roll-out of social prescribing across England. And we’ve shone a spotlight on the additional barriers people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities can face in reconnecting.
We are immensely proud of the contribution our campaigning and advocacy work has made to the development of the government’s Loneliness Strategy for England, with similar work taking place in the devolved nations. Further, we have the seen appointment of the world’s first minister for loneliness - and helped to ensure the post has been retained through two governments so far.
While the end of 2019 marks the conclusion of our formal partnership with the Co-op, our work to tackle loneliness is far from over. The roll-out of social prescribing services under NHS England has only just begun. We are at a critical moment in the journey to reduce stigma around loneliness and ensure everyone in need can get help to overcome it.
This year we will be supporting a major inquiry into loneliness through our work as the secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Loneliness, building on recommendations made in the wider Loneliness Action Group’s 2019 Shadow Report.
We will continue to advocate for long-term funding for loneliness services, building on our existing evidence base by undertaking research on the issue. In addition, we will be supporting education initiatives in England to help children and young people understand and deal with feelings of loneliness, as well as supporting their peers.
Whoever needs us, we will be there.
A helping hand
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