Now is the time to take on loneliness

17 Jun 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 17 Jun 2020

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash
Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Covid-19 risks an increase in loneliness. It also makes loneliness much more difficult to tackle. We have to think of ways to work against these problems – especially with Northern Ireland at risk of a coronavirus second wave.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown risks fuelling other health problems. One of these is loneliness.

Before the outbreak, one in five adults in Northern Ireland describe themselves as always or often lonely.  

This is a terrible problem not just because loneliness is bad, per se – which it is – but because the knock-on effects are so profound, similar to those of obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness can increase the risk of early death by as much as 30%.

Loneliness has long been an underappreciated problem. While that has begun to change, there is always a gap between recognition of an issue and the development of effective systems and policies to tackle it.

England and Wales has a Loneliness Strategy that Northern Ireland could use as the basis for its own policy programme. The need is significant.

NISRA figures released earlier this year found that loneliness – like almost every health concern – is more prevalent in areas of multiple deprivation and that two fifths of people over the age of 75 said they are often lonely, while 62% of those in poor health described themselves as lonely.

Add in coronavirus, and there are significant concerns about more and more people who might be vulnerable to loneliness right now.

One of the key driving factors in increasing loneliness is major transitions in life. Bereavement, separation, unemployment, becoming a carer and much more – all are risk factors for loneliness.

Over the past couple of months, all of these things have been happening to people just as they have always happened.

Meanwhile, the combination of pandemic and lockdown represents a major transition itself, for everyone. It is a massive life change, shared by everyone in Northern Ireland.

Many existing social links have been stretched or severed. The risk of increased loneliness is enormous.

Campaign

It is Loneliness Awareness Week 2020. The Action Group on Loneliness Policy in Northern Ireland is a campaign group comprised of several third sector organisations and some other outfits, including Barnardo’s, The Red Cross NI, the Royal College of GPs and more.

As well as calling for an overarching local loneliness strategy, the group has several policy demands for the Executive:

  • Ministerial lead on loneliness to lead immediate cross-departmental action
  • Launch a public campaign to get people talking openly about loneliness
  • Funding - loneliness to be a priority category in COVID-19 response and recovery funding
  • Publish loneliness guidance on supporting yourself and others safely
  • Cross-sector loneliness implementation group - bringing together the community and voluntary sector, businesses, schools, employers, health and social care - to share best practice and promote action on loneliness across society ,as we all adapt and look to rebuild individual and community resilience as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic

In a statement, the group said: “It has never been more important that we tackle loneliness, build connectedness and the sense of community we have seen in response to COVID-19…

“Lockdown, uncertainty and change during and after COVID-19 risks making even more of us feel lonely. We know that loneliness can be triggered by stress, poor physical and mental health as well as significant life changes –from stopping work or school to losing someone you love. We are all playing our part in tackling the virus.

“It is likely that groups who were at a substantially increased risk of becoming lonelyprior to COVID-19, as well as people who are shielding or who are digitally excluded, may be more vulnerable than ever. While social isolation is not always a negative and will not necessarily lead to loneliness, prolonged and unwanted isolation is not good for us.

“Over time, this can have a knock-on effect on our ability to relate and connect with others. While feeling lonely from time to time is natural, feeling lonely often - chronic loneliness – has serious implications for our physical health, mental health and wellbeing.”

Two-way street

Dealing with loneliness has perhaps never been more important.

Even though society is opening back up somewhat, social restrictions remain in place while effects from the recent, firmer lockdown could well linger.

And, it is vital to remember, the pandemic is not over. A second wave is possible.

Recent figures from the Department of Health estimate the current R number is between 0.5 and 0.9 the prevalence of current infections is between one in every 950 and one in every 6,300 people (i.e. the number of community cases are between 300 and 2,000).

Currently, the number of cases in Northern Ireland is so small that these estimates are – as is quite clear – inaccurate.

However, the DoH also estimates that less than 5% of the population has been infected and recovered. Per their report: “Preliminary results from serology (antibody measurement) studies indicated that less than 5% of the population have recovered from COVID-19 and have detectable antibodies, in line with estimates from modelling.

“This means that over 95% of the population remain susceptible to COVID-19 and that any subsequent waves of the epidemic have the potential to be significantly worse than wave 1.”

If we are lucky, social restrictions will only ever get easier from now on. However, it is entirely possible that we face another lockdown, more trying circumstances – perhaps much worse than the past couple of months, with greater trauma.

Therefore, it is vital to try and establish ways of dealing with the consequential problems of lockdown.

Tackling loneliness has to be a priority.

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