The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (9 to 15 May) is loneliness.

This Insight looks at how loneliness affects our mental health, what the Government has done to address the issue and future policy commitments.

What is loneliness?

The mental health charity Mind explains that loneliness is a personal feeling, so everyone experiences it in a different way. Living or spending time alone doesn’t mean someone is lonely. Many people experience loneliness despite having lots of friends or family around them. Loneliness is about what we get from our social interactions – whether we feel connected, rewarded and understood.

Feeling lonely from time to time is normal and isn’t a mental health problem. But research shows loneliness is associated with poor physical and mental health.

How does loneliness affect mental health?

The 2022 Tackling loneliness evidence review by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Loneliness Evidence Group says loneliness is associated with a range of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, psychosis and suicidal thoughts. There’s also an association between loneliness, cognitive decline and the onset of dementia.

For people living with a mental health condition, stigma or difficulty socialising can cause feelings of loneliness, which in turn worsen their mental health. A recent report on the psychology of loneliness explains that social anxiety and dementia  can lead to a “downward spiral of loneliness” (PDF).

This vicious cycle can be difficult to break without the right support but, as the report also explains, opening up about loneliness can be hard. The personal nature of loneliness and the stigma attached to it means people often suffer in silence and deny their experiences.

Loneliness and other areas of public health

The Campaign to End Loneliness has compiled research on loneliness and health, stating it’s a “huge public health concern”.

Findings include risks of premature death, an increased risk of stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease. Beyond its effects on wellbeing, the New Economics Foundation finds loneliness can affect the economy by leading to reduced productivity and increased staff turnover.

Covid-19 and loneliness

The Covid-19 pandemic presented numerous risk factors for loneliness, including social isolation, bereavement, and unemployment. Research by the Mental Health Foundation during the pandemic found almost a quarter of UK adults felt lonely because of the coronavirus. The British Red Cross found, compared to the general public, people who reported being ‘always or often lonely’ were three times more likely to feel they couldn’t cope with the impacts of the pandemic (PDF).

The Government’s Tackling Loneliness Strategy

Before her death in 2016, Jo Cox MP set up the cross-party Loneliness Commission, which continues to work to reduce loneliness in her name. In 2017, the Commission published Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time: A call to action (PDF). Then Prime Minister Theresa May committed to adopting many of the Commission’s recommendations, including the publication of A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness (2018). The strategy set out three objectives:

  • Improve the evidence base on what causes loneliness, what works to tackle it and how it can be measured.
  • Embed loneliness and the importance of social relationships across government policies.
  • Tackle stigma around loneliness and encourage reaching out for help.

Social prescribing’, where people are supported to join community groups and activities, was a main feature of the 2018 strategy and continues to be a prominent theme in preventing loneliness.

Responding to the pandemic

In April 2020, the Government launched a plan to tackle loneliness during the coronavirus lockdown. This included the latest #letstalkloneliness public campaign, a £5 million Loneliness Covid-19 Grant Fund, and convening the Tackling Loneliness Network. The Network published its action plan for tackling loneliness as part of the country’s recovery from Covid-19 in May 2021. The Tackling Loneliness Hub is a digital platform for organisations and professionals to share new research on the subject.

The third annual report on the Tackling Loneliness Strategy was published in February 2022. The report recognised that while many people are reconnecting with friends and family, many were also lonely prior to the pandemic and will not feel benefit from restrictions lifting.

The report sets out what the Government’s did to address loneliness over the past year, including a Local Connections Fund –  £4 million for grants to community groups tackling loneliness, in partnership with The National Lottery Community Fund. The Government also launched the latest Every Mind Matters Loneliness Campaign, aimed at young people.

Tackling loneliness: What’s next?

Government departments have laid out actions to come, including:

  • The Department for Transport exploring transport interventions to improve loneliness.
  • The Department of Health and Social Care including the risk of loneliness in a new safeguarding briefing for social workers.
  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs holding a roundtable with stakeholders to tackle loneliness in rural areas in 2022.

The Government says it plans to embed the importance of social connections in a new mental health strategy (a call for evidence is currently underway).

The Department for Health and Social Care has published a discussion paper and consultation on a mental health and wellbeing plan, open until 7 July 2022. It notes how social isolation and loneliness are risks for the development of mental health conditions and asks respondents how society can support people with existing mental health conditions to live well and make connections.

About the author: Katherine Garratt is a researcher specialising in mental health at the House of Commons Library, and is a Registered Mental Health Nurse.

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

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