The conventional image of loneliness or isolation, particularly at Christmas, is of an older person living on their own. But families can feel intensely isolated too. Everyone needs support from time to time, and when that support is absent and people feel they have no-one to turn to, it can have a significant impact on an individual's health and well-being and can damage families.
Our new report, No More Lonely Christmases, looks at how a cross-section of vulnerable families have coped with challenging circumstances ranging from post-natal depression, chaotic family life, caring responsibilities and severe poverty.
It is clear, from the personal stories of families we spoke to and the professional experience of our frontline support workers, that what often links these families are feelings of isolation and loneliness, which can wreak havoc on people's health and wellbeing. Such feelings can intensify in particularly damaging ways during the Christmas period.
However, while media attention is more often focused on the visible suffering of rough sleepers and people queuing at food banks, far too little is said about the grinding and malignant threat posed by social isolation and loneliness. It is a hidden predator that needs to be exposed and tackled.
Our snapshot survey found 59% of families referred to frontline Family Action support workers either show signs of, or have discussed, being lonely or isolated. Some 92% of support workers and managers say isolation and loneliness have a significant impact on the quality of life of the families who use our services.
Almost three-quarters (73%) of Family Action support workers regard loneliness and isolation as a key challenge at Christmas for families who use our services, whilst 76% consider it to be more of a problem during the Christmas period than at other times.
The solution, as we argue in the report, is to tackle isolation with a range of support of the kind offered by Family Action's services across the early years, for children and families, and with adults experiencing mental health problems.
This support may involve pairing a new mother suffering from post-natal depression with a volunteer buddy who is there to listen, talk and offer social, emotional and practical help. The support may involve inviting a child who spends hours every week looking after a sick relative to join a young carers group where he or she can take a break from their caring duties, speak to others with similar experiences and access practical help. The support may involve giving a financial grant to help a family in extreme poverty afford a bed or other essential household item. It may involve providing low-rent housing to adults with mental health problems and ensuring they get the practical help that they need to live independently. And it may involve going into the home of a chaotic family that is struggling to cope and helping to establish essential boundaries and routines.
By intervening early, in any one of these ways, the causes of social isolation can be tackled and the risk of destructive and costly family breakdown, potentially requiring legal, health and social services involvement, can be minimised.
As Christmas approaches, it is right that we take time to shine a light on the loneliness and isolation experienced by many families in the festive period. But our report also contains a message of hope in demonstrating how a little help at the right time can make families happier and stronger - not just at Christmas or for a few winter months, but all year round and for years to come.