13/04/2018 07:01 BST | Updated 31/05/2018 13:28 BST

We’re Facing A Loneliness Epidemic In The UK, Here’s How To Help Tackle It

We can all do our bit, whether helping a loved one or a total stranger.

‘Next Steps’ - a regular feature from our HumanKind project - focuses on how the public can take action to help make a difference in society.

While a lot of us associate loneliness with elderly people, it seems a large group of sufferers have flown under the radar.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 5% of adults in England reported feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’ between 2016 and 2017. Surprisingly, younger adults (those aged 16 to 24) were found to experience loneliness more often than those in older age groups; while women, widows, single people, renters and those with poor health were also identified as more susceptible.

Loneliness can be life-altering for those who experience it. It can also be a minefield for those who want to help but don’t know where to start.

So whether your friend has told you they’re lonely, you suspect your neighbour might be, or you just want to help, we spoke to experts from charities about the best ways for the public to work together to tackle the growing issue.

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If your partner is lonely

Relate counsellor Barbara Honey says it’s not uncommon for people in relationships to feel lonely. “They can be surrounded by people, they can be in what looks like a happy marriage or a good relationship, and they can still feel lonely,” she explains.

For a person supporting a partner who’s lonely, the key is listening and trying to empathise with them it’s about listening to the other person and trying to empathise with them. “Ask questions like: what can I do so you feel less lonely? Are there any particular times when you feel lonely?”

Honey says the biggest trap people often fall into is to say, “why don’t you just join a club, or just take up a hobby, or just get out more”. The word ‘just’ is problematic, she says, “because you’re giving the impression that you’re suggesting something that would be very easy. And for someone who feels lonely, it can be extremely difficult”.

Counselling might also help, Honey says, as this would explore in greater detail what is causing a partner’s feelings of loneliness.

If your friend or family member is lonely

According to mental health charity Mind, the simplest way to ease the feeling of loneliness is by meeting new people. So, if a friend or loved one has expressed they are lonely, it could be worth offering to try a new hobby with them or join a gym together. Fitness has been proven to boost mental health and it’s a great opportunity for both of you to catch up.

Alternatively you could set regular coffee dates or arrange to grab lunch and chat, which could be weekly, fortnightly or monthly.

If you’re quite close, you could encourage them to join an online community. Meetup.com allows users to find face-to-face groups of people who share their interests or aspirations; Empty Closets is an online community for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, curious or unsure; and Net Mums is an online community for parents which facilitates local meet-ups.

It’s important to remember that not everyone will feel able to do these things. Laura Alcock-Ferguson, executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, says when a person is lonely it can really impact their self-esteem, which makes it harder to overcome. Therefore taking steps to tackle loneliness can sometimes feel “overwhelming” - particularly for the elderly and those with illnesses that prevent them from getting out as much. If this is the case, she recommends just picking up the phone and calling them, “as just a 10-minute phone call can make a big difference to a lonely person”.

If you suspect someone is lonely

If someone hasn’t explicitly told you they’re lonely, it can be hard to know how to help. But for Richard Kramer, deputy CEO at disability charity Sense, the answer is pretty simple: talk.

“Strike up a conversation and discover the shared interests that are often the key to friendship,” he suggests. If you suspect a neighbour is lonely, stop by for a chat or invite them over for a cuppa, likewise if there’s always someone on their own in your local pub, or even on holiday, take some time out to talk to them.

Alcock-Ferguson adds: “We can only truly tackle loneliness if we all play our part – and simple everyday actions really do help.”

If you don’t know someone who’s lonely but want to help

Volunteering can be a beneficial way to tackle loneliness - and it’s generally a great thing to do whether you’re lonely or not. 

If you want to specifically tackle loneliness through volunteering, places like Age UK, North and South London Cares, The Silver Line and Contact the Elderly specialise in forming relationships between younger and older people. If you haven’t got time to volunteer but would still like to help the elderly, Age UK’s charity director, Caroline Abrahams, says simple things like having a friendly chat with an older person on a bus, picking up the phone to ring an older friend or relative for a chat, or offering to do the grocery shopping for an older neighbour are all ways in which the public can help combat the issue of loneliness. “We can all do our bit to help fight the problem,” she adds.

Richard Kramer, from Sense, says loneliness is disproportionately high among disabled people, with over half (53%) saying they experience loneliness, rising to three-quarters (77%) for young disabled people. As such, he recommends getting involved in local volunteer programmes which bring disabled and non-disabled people together. “Sense offers a buddying programme which matches a young disabled person with a volunteer who will spend one session a week with them on activities in the community,” he adds. 

For more volunteering opportunities, visit the Do-It Trust or NCVO’s volunteer centre finder.