Over the past few years, the topic of loneliness has been attracting greater attention both within the social sector and the public sphere. Theresa May pushed the topic up the political agenda by appointing the first minister for loneliness and announcing the first loneliness strategy.
This attention has begun to shift who we picture when we think of someone who is lonely: once an image of an older person might have sprung to mind, while now we’re becoming familiar with loneliness as a problem affecting a far wider range of people.
The impact of loneliness on individuals’ happiness and general wellbeing is broadly recognised, but over recent years more and more attention has been paid to its impact on health. Few articles on the subject are now written without reference to the finding that lacking social connections has a similar impact on mortality to smoking, and it has also been linked to depression and increased chance of developing dementia.
People who have few social connections may also be more vulnerable during extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves, presenting a challenge to community resilience in the face of a rapidly changing climate.
The role of civil society
Recognising the full impact and the range of people affected requires those working in the charity sector to ask new questions of ourselves. In an atomised society where family support networks are more stretched, what is the role of civil society in rebuilding personal connections? How do we design interventions and services smart enough to kick in when something as personal and individual as loneliness becomes an issue, and yet don’t lead to long-term dependency?
There are a wide range of reasons that people find themselves feeling lonely, so there’s unlikely to be a single solution. The rising interest in social prescribing presents an opportunity to address loneliness as a component of health but its benefits can only be realised if there are groups and activities to which people can be referred and, crucially, that they want to do. This depends on the availability of a wide range of localised initiatives offering differing levels of engagement and support.
The good news is that many such initiatives are thriving. Each year the Groundwork Community Awards showcases examples of communities coming together to strengthen the fabric of our neighbourhoods, often in ways that reduce social isolation. For example, Mothers Uncovered in Brighton, is providing space for new mums to speak openly about how their life has changed. Love Barrow Families involves the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the design of services to improve their lives. The CDA Herts community garden provides a safe space for local residents of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy working with and supporting each other.
When it comes to tackling loneliness, these kinds of localised, community-led projects have several benefits over more mainstream services. Most begin with local people recognising a need through their own experiences and so are responsive to users’ own priorities.
They’re a meeting of equals, with volunteers who have often previously been beneficiaries supporting their neighbours and forming lasting friendships. And many are there for the long term, embedded in place and sustained by local people, creatively generating funds and support from a wide range of sources.
Access to funding
That said, life for many community leaders is getting harder as projects rely on an increasingly threadbare social infrastructure to survive. Having spaces to meet and run activities – including parks, community gardens, libraries and community centres – is clearly vital, and many of these are under threat. Community groups tell us that accessing funding is increasingly competitive and sometimes restricted to narrowly defined project costs. Group leaders also tell us they need more help to build capacity and develop skills in areas such as safeguarding, public relations and community engagement, particularly since many are finding themselves dealing with growing levels and severity of need due to the closure of local authority services.
One of the ways more established charities can help is by sustaining the infrastructure local community groups need to take charge of the solutions to loneliness and social isolation. By re-engineering our services to support the endeavours of local people and by providing the tools and resources they say they need, we can help many more people build the personal bonds and neighbourly networks we all need to feel good about ourselves and our place in the world.
Graham Duxbury is national chief executive of Groundwork