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.
Our own survey figures suggest that 7% of UK adults feel ‘often or always’ lonely now, compared to 6% who reported that they had felt ‘often or always’ lonely before the pandemic, mirroring the Office for National Statistics’ findings that the number of people feeling ‘often or always’ lonely had increased from 5% in April 2020 to 7.2% in February 2021. This means that around 3.7 million adults living in Great Britain feel lonely.
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.
Contrary to received wisdom, being younger is a risk factor. Our ‘Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic’ series of research surveys has repeatedly shown 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 to 24 age range experienced loneliness in the past two weeks, compared to 34% in the 25 to 34 age range and 27% in the 35 to 44 age range. Our Mental Health Awareness Week poll found that 10% of 18 to 24 year olds (the youngest age group surveyed) were ‘often or always’ lonely, compared to the average of 7%.
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.
Local authorities are best placed to deliver loneliness interventions, yet councils are chronically underfunded. Public health, and, in particular, public mental health, has been neglected in England for too long. Despite recent uplifts, the Public Health Grant in 2021/22 was 24% lower than in 2015/16, representing a £1 billion real terms cut. Further, the British Medical Association has found that less than two per cent of the Public Health Grant is spent on promoting public mental health. Considering that local authorities are on the front line of preventing loneliness, this failure to resource councils adequately undercuts the vision of the loneliness strategy.
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 LGBTQIA+ 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.
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.
Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness. Our ‘Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic’ study 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 to 34 age range and 27% in the 35 to 44 age range. Our Opinium survey for 2022’s Mental Health Awareness Week found that 40% of full-time students reported that the coronavirus pandemic caused them to feel lonely.
Digital communication has revolutionised our ability to communicate, making it possible to talk to distant friends, relatives, and even strangers in real-time. For some, this has made it possible to find like-minded people where none exist in the communities around them. Others find that digital communication is no substitute for in-person social contact.
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.