Many mortal illnesses are close to being cured, but there is one still barely acknowledged, and it’s an epidemic: Loneliness.
Illness? I think so, an insidious, creeping menace; cruel, unforgiving and invisible, an embarrassment for many to even acknowledge. And whilst we should applaud the Prime Minister for recently giving a minister responsibility for it, what a shame it’s been dumped with one based in the department for culture, media and sport, of all places.
Loneliness is above all else a health issue and should be identified properly as such. This would help everyone to acknowledge the impact that undesired solitude has on the well-being of people, causing depression, self-harm and even death. Not really much to do with culture, media or sport, you might say.
Perhaps such casual assigning reflects that even with the best of intentions, society is struggling to recognise that loneliness is not a passing problem. It isn’t. This particular social blight will be with us because we are living longer, and often alone. This can be through choice, actuarial probability, bad luck or divorce; and even because of unrealistic expectations about some ideal human contact that can stop some people making any at all.
Meanwhile, social media is dislocating people from real world experiences, especially the young. When a café can get publicity from banning laptops and tablets in order to get people talking properly, you know there’s something up.
There are complicated dynamics at work. At one level, digital opportunity is colliding with economic equality (of a sort) for women, to force people apart from each other under the banner of apparent, and some actual, progress. Unfortunately, loneliness is emerging as the collateral damage.
I know from working with the Samaritans that loneliness is the single most powerful determinant of that final call to a complete stranger. Nobody deserves to have nowhere else to go but to a stranger on the end of a line. The calls we take come from across the spectrum, including from very young children, young people and the elderly. But thank goodness it is there.
There are profound implications from isolation for a society where recent research suggests that up to nine million adults identify themselves as lonely. Not everyone who is lonely is alone, either. Many of them may be young and in families, or caught in dried out relationships. Loneliness is a state of mind, not a physical place.
It can, for example, strike a marriage, leaving a couple in physical proximity, but mentally as distant as continents. Loneliness can be the scrapyard where love ends up, withered and broken despite the best of initial intentions. In other words, it can strike as a consequence of even the best regulated life choices.
What that tells us is that the lonely are everywhere around us, including where we work. We could all do more to identify sufferers, to reach out with warmth and interest.
The late Member of Parliament Jo Cox made loneliness a signature issue during her tragically short time as a politician. In her memory a commission reported on it, resulting directly in the ministerial appointment.
But we should all take responsibility for it, recognising how dangerously close we perhaps all our to being there ourselves. A good place to start for all us busy, family-focused people is to remember this: A network is great, but life is about relationships. And we could all get those wrong and be plunged, suddenly into isolation.