This week the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness launches its first report. Co-chair of the commission, MP Rachel Reeves writes in the New Statesman that loneliness should be seen as a public health issue, the solutions for which have to come from a complex blend of societal, technological, local and national government actions. Fresh ways are needed to prevent and reduce loneliness and it cannot be left to individuals alone.
With one million people aged 65 and over in the UK reporting they are often or always lonely, few would refute the need to tackle this issue, especially when it’s in people’s minds in the Christmas period. But it’s a year-round issue. In a report we’re publishing in January, we will say that loneliness and social isolation are conditions that are often difficult to identify, complex to address and hard to resolve. The evidence base for interventions that help to address the problem is emerging but inconclusive at this stage.
Contributing to communities
Loneliness is often talked about in terms of its threat to mental and physical health. It’s compared to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, smoking and the increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and dementia. It’s seen as a drain on limited health and social care resources, which is where initiatives such as social prescribing – for instance GPs ‘prescribing’ community support - are valuable.
What’s less often discussed is how much society misses out on the contribution that isolated people can make to their communities. We in society at large do not always get to benefit from their experiences, wisdom, knowledge, support and humour. Loneliness affects not only individual people but also the communities in which they live and they remain poorer.
Place-based commissioning, the identification of community assets and connecting people – these are all themes in current health and social policy. Friendly and supportive communities need to reflect and draw on the experiences and resources of everyone and to provide opportunities for them to engage and contribute. For example, a befriending service offers a mutually-beneficial exchange between the volunteer and the person visited.
We need to create the opportunities to bring people together, to maintain and create networks and friendships, and to promote activities that help to connect people.
Pamela Holmes is practice development manager at the SCIE
In the New Year, SCIE is publishing: ‘Tackling loneliness and social isolation: the role of commissioners’