Sarah Stone describes the impact of loneliness and isolation, and work being done to tackle it in Wales.
Samaritans welcomed the opportunity recently to contribute to the Assembly Health, Social Care and Sport Committee Inquiry into loneliness and isolation. We need to take this issue more seriously and understand it’s significant mental and physical health implications.
A major part of the training our volunteers undertake concerns learning how to listen. I did this training when I began my work with Samaritans and I found that just trying to listen well drew on all my resources. It was a lesson for life and it felt like only the beginning of learning a profound skill. To really listen to another person and to show that you have heard them is something which can have a deep and potentially lifesaving impact. The act of listening lets people know and, very importantly, feel that they are not alone. One of the values that underpins our listening service is that empathy from another person meets a fundamental human need. The understanding of the importance of talking, of connection, is central to our work.
The other side of this is the destructive effect of lack of connection. We know that loneliness and isolation can have a serious impact on a person’s physical and mental health and is a risk factor for suicidal behaviour and suicide. It is one of the most common reasons that people call our helpline. It is a serious public health issue which can affect people of all ages and especially affect high risk groups. It amplifies the impact of inequalities.
Our recent report ‘Dying from Inequality’ on the effect of socio-economic disadvantage, for example, refers to ‘thwarted belongingness’ that is the low social support experienced by people who are disadvantaged may reduce ‘belongingness’, the human need to be an accepted member of a group, resulting in an increased risk of developing suicidal thoughts.
In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation commissioned a survey on loneliness in adults throughout the UK and found that the 18 to 34 year olds surveyed were more likely to feel lonely often, to worry about feeling alone and to feel depressed because of loneliness than those over 55. One of the reasons for these figures may well be the increasing use of the internet and online socialisation. Children today are born into a complex world where social media, internet use, information and communication technology is embedded in their early development, childhood and subsequent maturation. There is evidence that social media may be causing loneliness and depression in teenagers. In a recent US study on the effect of social media use on feelings of social isolation, the University of Pittsburgh found that more than two hours social media use a day doubled the chances of a person experiencing social isolation. On the other hand there is a large and to a significant extent unrealised potential for help for distressed individuals to be delivered online.
Men are a high risk group for loneliness and isolation. In the most recent Office for National Statistics figures for suicide in Wales 81% of suicides were men compared with 19% being women. Our report on Men and Suicide in which five leading social scientists looked at the issues facing men and focussed in part on socialisation and on the expectations from childhood around social and emotional skills. It identified the potential for a ‘big build’, that is a build-up of distress, coupled with difficulties admitting to a problem or seeking help, which can culminate in crisis, breakdown and suicidal feelings and behaviour. This means that when facing loneliness and isolation men may be less likely to reach out for help.
Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. Half of those over 75 in the UK live alone and 1 in 10 experience intense loneliness. Older people become socially isolated for a variety of reasons including poor health, no longer being the hub of their family, retirement, low income, becoming a carer and the death of partners and friends.
The severity of the effect of loneliness on people should focus our attention on the actions we can take to mitigate it. There are actions we can take at an individual, community and societal level which can help. These include:
The effective local implementation of Wales Suicide and Self Harm prevention strategy, Talk to me 2. The strategy has a welcome focus on isolation as a risk factor and social connectedness as a protective factor.
The use of loneliness mapping. This is a tool which allows local services and local authorities to work collaboratively to use existing data to predict where the most lonely and isolated residents live, allowing limited resources to be targeted at people and places that need them most.
Support for community and outreach groups is critical in supporting the connection of people to each other. Such groups have a significance beyond their specific focus and their wide ranging themes and nature is a part of their strength. Digital literacy, sports, basic numeracy, arts and crafts, music and coffee mornings are all examples of groups which achieve the outcome of social connection. An understanding of the serious impact of loneliness and of the need to address it increases the priority which needs to be given to supporting, facilitating and encouraging these activities to exist and thrive. These types of community or social groups need to be recognised for their health benefits. They help to tackle loneliness and isolation and can work to reach those who are at highest risk of being excluded.
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