This week’s announcement that Tracey Crouch, the minister for sport and civil society, will now lead Government action to tackle loneliness is very good news. Loneliness exacts a huge economic and social cost: more than nine million people in the UK – one in five of us – are always or often lonely (although only two thirds of us will admit it).
Loneliness affects all age groups: more than 200,000 older people (aged 65 and over) have not had a conversation with friends or family for a month, while a quarter of parents say they feel often or always lonely, and Childline cites rising numbers of young people reporting their sense of isolation and desperation. It is worse still for disabled people, 25% of whom feel lonely on a typical day, rising to well over a third for those aged 18 to 34.
The impact of this is huge. Loneliness increases the risk of premature death – it is more harmful than obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day – so as well as the cost to individual mental and physical health, it also inflicts a £32bn cost on the British economy every year.
It is time to focus on this tragedy of our times. Along with Crouch’s appointment, there was a further announcement that the Government will develop a ‘loneliness strategy’, gathering more evidence and statistics, and funding community groups to start activities which connect people.
Connecting people is what Spirit of 2012 is all about. We have an unwavering focus on bringing people together – usually through arts- or sports-based projects – and we place real emphasis on measuring our impact on people’s wellbeing and sense of self-worth, so that we know we’re making a difference.
At the end of last year we published our first independent evaluation report, which revealed the impact of our first three years of funding. We were overwhelmed by the results: participants reported a 10% rise in life satisfaction, 9% rise in happiness and a 5% drop in feelings of anxiety.
We were moved in particular by the powerful personal testimonies included in the report, from individuals who had found friendship, purpose and community through their involvement in our projects.
Like Joan, who took part in our Fourteen project in Northern Ireland, joining Step Forward which gave her a chance to socialise and get active in regular exercise classes. “They get me out of bed,” she said. And more than that, they have connected her to a group of new friends, meaning she’s less isolated and less lonely. “If I hadn’t been to them, I don’t know where I would be today.”
Pauline took part in our Cultural Shift project, which engages disabled people as participants, artists and audiences. “I had become quite isolated, disillusioned and detached,” she said of her time before becoming involved as one of Cultural Shift’s disabled artistic contributors. “A transformation has taken place. I am now in a new position professionally with a disabled-led arts organisation wanting to take my play to the next level.”
These stories highlight – and justify – why we place such emphasis on funding projects that connect individuals and communities. Our investment is in happiness, and that happiness comes not only through worthwhile engagement in an activity or event, but also from the links that people make to each other as a result.
Tracy Crouch’s appointment, and the new Government focus on tackling loneliness is testament to the determination and hard work of the late MP Jo Cox. She described loneliness as a ‘shocking crisis’ and reached across party divides to start a vital conversation about the devastating impact of social isolation and fragmenting communities.
Her vision has been kept alive through the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, whose work led to yesterday’s announcements – a fitting legacy. We will continue our work to combat loneliness and isolation by funding projects with people at their heart, and that also leave a lasting legacy of new networks, friendships and communities.
Today we launch a new Challenge Fund for sports and physical activity. We will look for projects that bring people together to be physically active, but above that we will prioritise those with opportunities for socialising at their heart. Including time for social contact is at least, if not more, important than taking exercise. People can only be healthy when they are happy – we know that. We’ve done the research.
For more on the Spirit Sport Challenge Fund head to www.spiritof2012trust.org.uk.