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Loneliness: 'Robbing people of the moments that make life meaningful'

04-Jan-17
Article By: Ellie Spanswick, News Editor

Most people know someone who has experienced loneliness. But loneliness is no longer thought to be just an older person's problem - it affects young people too.

In March last year, the Office for National Statistics reported that despite rises in people's disposable income and a higher employment rate, people’s mental wellbeing scores had fallen.

In December it was reported that 'millennials' (those reaching adulthood at the turn of the 21st century) are ‘more lonely’ than older generations, with hectic social calendars and financial stress being cited as the most common reasons for people experiencing mental health problems and being more lonely than in the past.

Although loneliness itself isn’t a mental health problem, the two are closely linked, with mental health issues increasing a person’s chance of feeling lonely and lonely feelings having a negative impact on a person's mental health.

Loneliness can affect anyone at any age

In December, the British Red Cross and the Co-Operative Group published a study which revealed that almost one-fifth of the UK population (nearly nine million people) are always or often lonely. This includes young mums and single parents, those with health and mobility issues and those who are physically isolated in their communities.

Befriending and volunteering schemes are proving crucial to supporting people who are lonely and isolated.

Volunteering Matters is a UK charity providing a range of high social impact volunteering opportunities for people who are a range of ages and with a range of abilities.

Chief executive of the charity, Oonagh Aitken said: “Often our volunteers say they want to give something back to their own community. For younger people sometimes it’s about employability skills and confidence building. For others, they said they want to transform people’s lives. Some people want to get out and for others it is about improving their physical and mental wellbeing.

“The Retired and Senior volunteer programme that we run is one of our biggest programmes, especially for older people, with volunteers providing befriending schemes to other isolated older people in their local communities.

“Our volunteers tell us time and time again about the benefits they have gained through volunteering. They tell us that volunteering has boosted their confidence and self-esteem, helped them to develop new skills and enabled them to form new and meaningful relationships with people who they might not otherwise encounter in their daily lives.”

The issue of loneliness is more commonly associated with older people and those whose families may have moved away, whose loved ones may have died or those who are socially isolated from their friends, neighbours and the local community.

Is it their 'own fault' they are lonely?

The Campaign to End Loneliness, formed by a network of organisations including Age UK, was established to help local authorities identify the UK’s ‘hidden lonely’ and support individuals directly.

A study conducted by the campaign last year revealed 92 per cent of people thought others were too scared to admit they were lonely. People were asked: ‘What do you think people imagine about those who are lonely?’, the most common responses by participants included ‘there is something wrong with them’, ‘they are unfriendly’ and ‘it is their fault they are lonely’.

Previous studies by the campaign have revealed that over 10 per cent of people aged over 65 (more than one million people) feel chronically lonely all or most of the time. Some 80 per cent of GPs report seeing up to five patients a day who say they are lonely.

Although the majority of people volunteering with Volunteering Matters are older people, the charity runs programmes for people of all ages and walks of life. It recruits volunteers for different schemes around the UK, even working with some GPs who offer social prescribing.

Many projects the charity supports are volunteer-led and support people in local communities, often through befriending schemes which can benefit volunteers and beneficiaries.

Loneliness as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

Writing in a blog, posted last month on Volunteering Matters, Ms Aitken said: “Loneliness is such a waste. Research suggests that it is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity, it not only causes illness, it robs people of the moments that make life meaningful and worthwhile.

“It’s a common misconception that loneliness is only a problem for older people. Loneliness can affect people across the life span, due to a range of social, economic and health-related factors.

“When you ask people with high levels of wellbeing about their lives, they’ll tell you about a strong network of friends and family who support them through the good and the bad times.

“Social action volunteering can help to address our loneliness epidemic in several ways. An Age UK loneliness and isolation evidence review found that befriending schemes are one of the most effective services for combating both isolation and loneliness.

"As responsible citizens we should be trying our best to create a society where everyone feels supported and valued."

'Wake up to the problem of loneliness' - a public health issue

The Local Government Association (LGA) revealed last December that more than 370 councils in England and Wales reported that the impact of loneliness and isolation on health and social care meant it should be recognised as a major public health issue.

The chairwoman of the LGA's Community Wellbeing Board, councillor Izzi Seccombe, said: "Councils across the country have programmes and initiatives in place to tackle loneliness. It is a real public health concern given the impact loneliness and social isolation has on people's health and wellbeing.

"We all need to wake up to this problem, which is placing an increasing burden on health and social care."

A growing number of councils are launching befriending and volunteer- led initiatives to support lonely people. Some councils are piloting video-calling tablets for over 55s and others have created 'loneliness maps’ to calculate where lonely residents are most likely to live.

Organisations such as Essex-based WaveLength provide radios and TVs to the lonely, isolated and those living in poverty, giving them a lifeline to the outside world.

Charities such as Mind, The Mental Health Foundation and The Blurt Foundation give support to those with mental health issues and those feeling lonely.

The Mental Health Foundation's 'peer support' programmes include bringing single parents together to create support networks and improve mental health and wellbeing.

A spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation said: “We know that good social connections are as important to our physical and mental health as not smoking. But yet as a society, we place too little focus on combating loneliness and isolation. An issue that doesn’t just affect those in later life, when people can become physically isolated, loneliness can affect anyone of any age.

"Social media and digital communications have a role to play in combating isolation but they are no replacement for face to face contact. All of us would benefit from making more time to be with and listen to friends, family and neighbours.”

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