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What are social isolation and loneliness?

Loneliness is generally held to describe an individual who has a negative perception of the quality and quantity of their social relationships. Living or spending time alone does not necessarily mean somebody is lonely. Conversely, people can experience loneliness despite having lots of friends or family around them.

The subjective feeling of loneliness is distinguishable from social isolation, which is a measure of the quality and size of an individual’s social network. It is possible to be lonely when in a social network.

How prevalent is loneliness?

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Community Life Survey 2021/22 found:

  • 47% of adults (16+) experience some degree of loneliness.
  • People aged 16 to 24 were more likely to say they felt lonely often/always (10%) than groups aged 35 and above (3 to 9%).
  • People with a limiting long-term illness or disability were more likely to say they felt lonely often/always than those without (9% compared with 3%).

In June 2022, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published research investigating factors associated with loneliness in adults in England. Its findings included:

  • Women, young people (aged 16 to 34), those who live alone and those who were widowed were found to be at greater risk of loneliness.
  • People with disabilities or longstanding health conditions were almost three times more likely to experience chronic loneliness as those without.
  • Young people (16 to 34 years old) had over five times greater odds of chronic loneliness than those aged 65 or older.

What can be the impact of loneliness?

Often feeling lonely or experiencing chronic loneliness has been linked to adverse health impacts, including:

  • Early death: the effect of loneliness on mortality is thought to be on a par with other public health priorities like obesity or smoking.
  • An increased risk of depression, low self-esteem, reported sleep problems and increased stress response.
  • Greater risk of cognitive decline and the onset of dementia.

Loneliness can also impact society more generally. For example, there is evidence that lonely people are more likely to be admitted to hospital or have a longer stay, visit a GP or A&E, and enter local authority funded residential care.

Government policy

2018 loneliness strategy

In October 2018, the UK Government published A connected society: A Strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change, which it described as “a foundation for a generation of policy work”.

The strategy set out several commitments aimed at achieving three core objectives:

  • Improving the evidence base on what causes loneliness, what works to tackle it and how it can be measured.
  • Embedding loneliness and the importance of social relationships across government policies.
  • Tackling stigma around loneliness and encourage reaching out for help.[1]

Fourth loneliness annual report

The Government has provided updates on the progress made against commitments in the 2018 loneliness strategy in a series of annual reports published since 2020. The fourth annual report was published in March 2023.

The report provided a summary of work undertaken in the previous five years under the strategy’s three objectives and set out Government commitments for the next two years (between 2023 and 2025)

Among other things, the annual report noted that in March 2023, DCMS launched the Know Your Neighbourhood Fund, with up to £30 million of funding. The programme aims to increase volunteering and reduce chronic loneliness in 27 disadvantaged areas of England. The fund will run until March 2025, with funding allocations taking place up until March 2024.

The annual report also said the Government would continue to work with partners as part of the Better Health: Every Mind Matters campaign as part of its work to reduce the stigma around loneliness.

[1]       UK Government, A connected society: A strategy for tackling loneliness, October 2018, p14.

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