In Britain, more than nine million people are thought to often or always feel lonely, with the elderly and the young seemingly most affected.
Earlier this month, Childline reported a 14% rise in the number of children contacting the charity about loneliness, the vast majority of whom were girls. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, one in nine older people have contact with friends or family less than once a month and for four million older people in the UK, TV is their main source of company.
This week, Tracey Crouch, the UK’s ‘Minister for Loneliness’ – the first in the world – told HuffPost UK she had been been inundated with pleas for help since her appointment by Theresa May. The MP underlined the extent to which young people are affected by the issue.
“Although older people feature highly on the statistics scale, it’s 16- to 24-year-olds that are more likely to feel lonely,” she said, pointing to the impact of social media.
“One of the possible causes of loneliness, particularly among young people is the advent of digital connectivity. We have one of the most digitally connected generations and yet what we are seeing is an increase in loneliness. That is a potential link.”
While loneliness isn’t a mental health disorder it is linked to poor mental health, which is why it’s increasingly important to address the issue.
In Birmingham city centre, I meet people of all ages who tell me they’ve felt lonely at some point in their lives. Some still do. Sharmayne Walters, 35, says she has strong memories of feeling lonely from the age of 10 or 11, because she didn’t feel like she fitted in. “That continued through adulthood as well,” she says.
“It could have a little bit to do with low self-esteem. But maybe culturally as well - being a minority, figuring out how you fit in with other cultures, with your own culture.” She says self acceptance and learning to not compare herself to others has helped over time.
Sometimes feelings of loneliness can last a few days, sometimes they can seem to last a lifetime. Hamza Mir, 21, is visiting family in Birmingham on the day I speak to him, because his mum, who he lives with in Nottingham, is on holiday in Pakistan and he’s feeling lonely.
“When you’ve been around people for a lot of the time and then you’re suddenly isolated on your own, it kicks in,” he says. “I remember when I was younger and hanging out with a lot of my friends, we used to meet up every day. Now everybody’s got jobs and we’re all at university, so it’s a lot harder to make time. And even if we do make time it’s not a very long time - it’s just a couple of hours and then everybody has to go back to their lives.”
Places of Welcome is an organisation that supports community groups open to people of all ages, allowing them to find friendly faces, have a chat and a cup of tea. The organisation began in Birmingham, and there are 50 sites across the city - in churches, mosques, libraries and other communal buildings - and 200 in total across the UK. Louise White, who runs one of the Places of Welcome groups, says community groups in the city are “flourishing”.
On the streets of Birmingham, some people tell me they’re surrounded by big families and therefore never feel lonely - they count themselves as blessed. But loneliness isn’t always about having people around. One woman who wished to stay anonymous tells me: “You can live in a house full of people and still feel alone.”
John Hennessy, 63, explains that he felt alone when he was dealing with debt because he felt like he had nobody to talk to. “It’s when you feel like you’re having to resolve problems by yourself,” he says. Hennessy eventually plucked up the courage to talk to someone about his problems. He contacted the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which helped.
In an age when people seem barely to have time for themselves, let alone other people, what can be done to address loneliness? Councillor James Burn, leader of Solihull’s Green Group, argues that the answer could lie with councils. They are “uniquely placed” to tackle the issue, he says: “They have a huge number of staff who interact with the people most likely to be lonely, and they hold a huge amount of data that shows where people are likely to be most lonely.
Solihull council plans to introduce a dedicated website where people can get information on how to become more socially connected. It also wants to educate all front-line staff on the signs of loneliness, ensuring they are trained to have sensitive conversations about this.
There are also plans to work with the NHS to make sure more use is made of “social prescribing” - where patients are ‘prescribed’ sources of support within the community.
Heather Heuston, 62, from Sutton Coldfield says she became lonely when her three children left home. She was also single, after splitting from her long-term partner, so in both the physical and emotional sense she found herself alone.
She speaks to her son three to four times a week, but says she’s sad that her family don’t visit more - particularly in the evenings when loneliness tends to rear its head.
She has however made friends through Ageing Better, a charity which organises meet ups for people aged 50 and above, helping them to overcome isolation. “I get out in the day, I’m busy, and then I can cope with the nights,” she says.
Now if she finds herself feeling lonely, she’s learned to manage it. “I surround myself with people who make me laugh; laughter is the best medicine,” she says.
Loneliness is clearly a complex issue, but one that some organisations are working to tackle. Cllr Burns says there are also good financial reasons for councils to grasp the mettle. “Loneliness is one of the major causes of misery in our society, and people who are lonely are more likely to become physically ill as well as to suffer mental health problems,” he says. “For every pound spent on loneliness, we’d probably save about £3 on spending we’d not need to make later.”
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HuffPostListens – Birmingham
HuffPost wants to get out of the media bubble and tell the real story of the UK. For one week we relocate our newsroom to the heart ofBirmingham and invite people to tell us what they care about - we will go and report on it. We’re also hiring more reporters out of London, starting in Birmingham. We don’t think the media has listened to people enough, so that’s what we’re doing. Listening to the stories ofBirmingham, opening up our newsroom to its people and telling the real story of Britain from the heart of one of its biggest and best cities. You decide the news. We’ll tell your story. Birmingham, be heard. #HuffPostListens
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