The focus of the John Lewis advert this year is the isolation of the 'man on the moon' who sits alone until he is connected to earth by a telescope, purchased, of course, from John Lewis. The advert laudably highlights loneliness at Christmas; if only the answer to loneliness was shopping.
In reality, loneliness is a serious and growing phenomenon in our complex society. At a time when we have never been more connected via digital devices, with over one billion of us using Facebook every day, the paradox is that physical isolation is increasing. We spend more time with our heads stuck in a phone or tablet than we do looking out for one another. More people than ever are living by themselves, especially amongst the over-65s.
Loneliness is not the same as the solitude that all of us experience, and occasionally seek. It is a persistent state of being alone, and feeling isolated and uncared for. It leads to negative thoughts and behaviours, such as not wanting to go out to socialise because of feelings of unworthiness or awkwardness. It has a huge impact on mental health, and can be linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety, phobias or depression.
Our understanding grows all the time about the links between loneliness, mental and physical health. The Marmot Review, conducted under the last Labour government, showed that people who live isolated lives are five times more likely to die early than people with a strong social network. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness is as dangerous to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more dangerous than obesity. Medical studies show a clear link between loneliness and dementia, high blood pressure, and suicide.
This correlation should come as no great surprise. Throughout history, the worst forms of punishment and torture have included enforced isolation from the medieval oubliette (a place where someone was 'forgotten') to modern-day 'solitary confinement' used as punishment in prisons. We are social creatures. We thrive in the company of others. We need love and companionship to maintain good mental health. In the words of the Scottish philosopher John McMurray 'we need one another to be ourselves'.
What can we do to tackle loneliness? At Christmas, we are reminded to look in on our neighbours, to invite people living by themselves to lunch, and to reach out to people who are away from their loved ones. But we need a more systemic approach, beyond these important acts of fellowship and kindness.
The Campaign to End Loneliness published an important report Hidden Citizens earlier this year which looks at the causes and triggers for loneliness, such as bereavement. It helps local service providers such as councils, the NHS and charities to identify groups most at risk, and to tailor services to their needs.
They key point is that there's more to tackling loneliness than putting on events and hoping people will turn up. Once someone feels isolated, they often enter a spiral of self-reinforcing behaviour, including driving those who try to befriend them away.
As with all mental health issues, the causes and remedies are complex, and often counter-intuitive. The challenge for policy-makers is to design services, for example access to talking therapies on the NHS, which will have the most impact. Whilst ministers talk about parity of esteem between physical and mental health, the loneliness epidemic shows how far we have to go.
Until we properly tackle and end loneliness, we will not have dealt with one of the major contributors to poor health. This Christmas, let's take the seasonal spirit of altruism further, and ensure that in 2016 no-one is left feeling isolated and alone.