Loneliness England policy briefing
Human beings are social creatures. For the great majority of us, social connection and belonging are central to our well-being. But, when the quality or quantity of our social relationships does not meet our needs or expectations, we can start to feel lonely.
While loneliness is a common experience when it is long-term and enduring it can have a serious, detrimental effect on our mental health and it must be taken seriously.
In recent years, the governments around the UK have rightly recognised tackling loneliness as a priority for policy action. Encouragingly, the Westminster Government was the first to appoint a Minister for Loneliness and to publish a strategy for tackling loneliness,1 and Scotland and Wales have also published loneliness strategies.
It is essential that we do not lose this momentum.
Loneliness and mental health
Despite positive action from the government, the coronavirus pandemic has increased levels of loneliness. According to the British Red Cross, 41% of people reported feeling lonelier since the first lockdown.
Loneliness and inequalities
Although loneliness can affect anyone of any age or background, loneliness affects some groups more than others.
Existing evidence shows that people living in deprived areas report higher levels of loneliness than those in non-deprived areas. Unemployment, loss of a partner, renting and having health conditions, and being self-described as ‘limiting’ are all also particularly closely related to feelings of loneliness.
1. Taking a strategic approach to loneliness
The UK government published the world’s first government strategy for tackling loneliness, ‘A Connected Society: A strategy for tackling loneliness’ in 2018.1 The strategy lays a strong foundation for action to tackle loneliness, and subsequent reviews have filled some of the gaps in the original strategy, for example by improving the policy offering for children and young people. However, the strategy is let down by the public health ecosystem in which it sits.
2. Developing the community resources needed to tackle loneliness
People draw on their local communities as an important source of protection against loneliness. However, a poor sense of community belonging can rob people of this vital protective factor.
Underinvestment in local communities means that strong, local community networks do not exist for some groups of people. Those living in deprived areas, who are younger renters, or those in minority cultural or ethnic communities are particularly at risk of lacking this social resource. Our data shows that 48% of people from a mixed or multiple ethnic backgrounds and 49% of LGB respondents reported that they did not have enough opportunities in the community to connect with others in a meaningful way, compared with 35% of the whole population.
3. Building a greener 'lived' environment that supports social contact
A less desirable built environment is associated with greater experiences of loneliness. We know that our sense of connection to nature is fundamental to our mental health and that both the availability of nature and the biodiversity of nature are associated with this well-being benefit. Further research shows that less green space coincides with feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support and a lower sense of neighbourhood safety can also contribute to feelings of loneliness, both factors that are more likely to affect those living in deprived areas.
4. Supporting children and young people with interventions in education settings
Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness. Our ‘Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic’ repeatedly found that young people are particularly likely to be experiencing loneliness during the pandemic. In wave 8 of our survey (late November 2020), 38% of those in the 18-24 age range experienced loneliness in the past two weeks, compared to 34% in the 25-34 age range and 27% in the 35-44 age range.11 Our Opinium survey for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week found that 40% of full-time students reported that the coronavirus pandemic caused them to feel lonely.
5. Ensuring that everyone has access to digital communication technology, and the skills to use it, and respect preferences for non-digital forms of communication
Regardless of individual preference, digital exclusion is a significant barrier for people to achieve their desired quantity and quality of social relationships. Whether digital access would be a supplement and facilitator to in-person socialising, or a means of feeling a part of a global sub-culture, being digitally excluded removes these options. This has been especially obvious during the pandemic when so much communication was forced online.