Stormont should take on loneliness in 2021

14 Dec 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 14 Dec 2020

Covid-19 may have increased loneliness - but loneliness was an issue before the pandemic and, without reform, will remain one even as society returns to normal or something very like it.

 

For many people, Christmas is one of the best times of the year.

Time spent with loved ones, time off work, plenty of indulgent food and drink – the next few weeks are exceptional and significant in all sorts of ways.

For those of the Christian faith, it is a period of great religious significance but Christmas can be a time of reflection for everyone. Family, friends, presents and turkey dinners are, for many, great reminders of the good things in their lives. Not everyone is so lucky.

Last week the Campaign to End Loneliness published a new report outlining why efforts to tackle loneliness in Northern Ireland need to be transformed.

Loneliness in Northern Ireland: A call to action has three top recommendations for policy makers.

One of these is delivery of a Covid-19 response to loneliness, including addressing digital exclusion and improving broadband access across the population; investing in the social infrastructure that protects against loneliness; more proactive emotional support for those who are particularly isolated.

The others are a comprehensive, cross-departmental loneliness strategy for Northern Ireland (perhaps similar to the ongoing strategy in England and Wales); and that a full inquiry should take place to examine loneliness in NI and explore solutions via an ad hoc Stormont committee.

Over 70 organisations in Northern Ireland – including NICVA, Inspire and Red Cross NI – wrote a letter to the First Minister and deputy First Minister highlighting this new report and calling for more to be done to tackle loneliness.

Loneliness

Before the pandemic, one in five people in Northern Ireland said they were often or always lonely.

Loneliness is often associated with older people and, while that group is disproportionately affected, loneliness can happen to anyone. While there is no single cause, anyone going through a major change in their lives is at higher risk.

Changes can include what are perhaps more obvious risk factors like bereavement or separation, as well as life transitions such as parenthood, moving away from home, or becoming a carer.

Per the report: “Lockdown, shielding, self-isolation and social distancing mean we have all been through some kind of separation from family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. It’s reminded us how much we value our relationships – and given us some insight into the one in five people who are lonely in Northern Ireland…

“Loneliness is often linked to social isolation, but it is not the same thing. Social isolation is objective. It describes the quantity of social connections and relationships that someone has – such as whether someone has met a friend in the last week. Loneliness on the other hand is deeply personal.”

Lucid Talk polling, on behalf of the Campaign to End Loneliness, found that 40% of people in NI said Covid-19 restrictions on day-to-day life have caused them to feel lonely while 88% said loneliness has become a bigger problem since the beginning of the pandemic.

Findings and testimonies

A fifth of people in Northern Ireland say they are often or always lonely. One in 20 of the population – around 80,000 people – suffer from chronic loneliness, meaning they always feel lonely and, as a result, their wider health and wellbeing is at risk.

Loneliness can happen to anyone, and at any point in their lives, but some groups are more affected than others. According to the new report:

  • 55- to 64-year-old people have highest levels of chronic loneliness – 7.6%
  • 61% of widowed people most feel ‘more often lonely’ while 13.8% live with chronic loneliness
  • 7 in 10 carers experience loneliness
  • People not in paid employment (9%) are more than three times more likely to experience chronic loneliness than those in a job (2.5%)
  • 42% of people living in the most deprived areas are ‘more often lonely’, compared to 28% in the least deprived areas
  • 39% of women in Northern Ireland are more likely to be ‘more often’ lonely, compared to 31% of men, while women also have higher rates of chronic loneliness – 6.5%, compared with 5% of men.
  • 50% of girls aged 11-16 feel lonely ‘most of the time’, compared with 34% of boys. The level of chronic loneliness among girls (8%) is more than double that reported by boys (4%)
  • 1 in 4 children and young people in Northern Ireland who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual feel isolated in school because of their sexuality
  • People not in paid employment (9%) are more than three times more likely to experience chronic loneliness than those in a job (2.5%)

Behind all these statistics are human stories. The report carries some short quotes illustrating both how loneliness can happen and the effects it can have on people’s lives. Examples include:

“It’s my 45th wedding year anniversary today, my wife died earlier this year and you’re the first person I have spoken to today.”

“It’s just so nice to sit and be able to enjoy a cup of tea in peace and have a conversation with another adult. I’ve lost touch with my friends since I became a mum.”

“I’m used to being married...now I’m completely on my own. This person I’m living with is not the person I married. There is no affection. It’s like having a stranger in the house. How do you cope with that?”

Impacts

Loneliness is a problem in and of itself but can have all sorts of knock-on negative effects on people’s health.

“When loneliness becomes chronic the effects can be severe. It increases the risk of death by 26 per cent – an impact on physical health that is comparable to smoking, obesity, physical inactivity or air pollution. Loneliness increases the chances of a range of cardiovascular problems such as blood pressure and coronary heart disease.

“Loneliness affects our mental wellbeing too – it is a risk factor for depression in later life and affects children’s emotional health and wellbeing. Loneliness also speeds up cognitive decline.

“Given the seriousness of these effects on our wellbeing it is not a surprise that loneliness leads to people using health services more. Three in four GPs say that they see between 1 and 5 lonely people every day.

“Someone over the age of 65 who is lonely will have higher healthcare costs across 10 years of around £6,000. Nevertheless, the key reason for tackling loneliness is its severe impact on our wellbeing.”

The costs of severe loneliness (and consequential demand for services), in terms of wellbeing, per person, per year, is almost £10,000.

Call to action

The Campaign to End Loneliness’ report outlines principles the paper says NI’s loneliness strategy should operate under. These include:

Sustainable funding – a Loneliness and Isolation Fund should be established “to stimulate innovation, and scale up promising approaches” while a loneliness criterion should be embedded to existing funding sources at all levels of government to make policies and programmes take better account of this issue.

Public awareness – an information campaign should highlight the issue and reduce stigma.

Specific measures for children and young people – schools and youth services should build measures to support children and young people at risk of loneliness “as a first step” in tailoring provision for young people.

Support and develop infrastructure to tackle loneliness and increase social connections – an appreciation of loneliness and efforts to reduce its prevalence and its effects should be woven into wider planning in policy areas ranging from transport and housing to arts and culture.

Promote and support opportunities for people to connect – a regional mapping exercise should audit what loneliness services already exist in NI, identify best practice, areas for improvement, gaps in provision and duplications. Signposting services for people experiencing loneliness should be developed off the back of this work.

As well as identifying the working principles of a loneliness strategy, the campaign report sets out next steps policymakers could follow to work towards more comprehensive, joined-up provision.

“Joined-up” being the operative term here. The duplications and gaps that often stem from siloed or simply non-strategic working apply in this area. There are many organisations who have a primary or secondary focus on loneliness, but without an audit of services and a NI-wide strategy, the good work being done will not result in the best (or most efficient) outcomes.

Stormont has plenty on its plate but loneliness cuts across many other issues – and exacerbates pressures on health and mental health services.

It should be a priority.

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