Kate Jopling: Societal illness that needs to be addressed

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MOST of us instinctively know that loneliness is something we want to avoid. But what is loneliness? At the Campaign to End Loneliness we work alongside a group of inspiring academic researchers who are heavily involved in the quest to properly understand this strange, subjective phenomenon.

Some, like John Cacioppo, draw comparisons between loneliness and hunger – while hunger tells us we need to go and seek food, loneliness tells us we need to go and seek out companionship. We know that, at root, humans are sociable animals, but we also know that each of us has different requirements for contact with others.

Some of us are delighted to spend most of our time alone, in our own company, but others need to be surrounded by friends and family all day long. That tells us that loneliness is not an objective state – you can’t measure if someone is lonely by just counting up their friends, or asking how many times they speak to someone – instead it’s a feeling. Only you can tell me if you are feeling lonely.

However, while loneliness is an individual experience, it is something that affects not just the people who are experiencing it on any given day, but all of us. Loneliness is not just a sad state of affairs. It is a societal illness which, if it is not addressed, breeds wider harms that affect the whole community – robbing us of the enormous potential contribution of those lonely people, and costing our health and care systems dear.

The Campaign to End Loneliness has been working for the past couple of years to get across the message that loneliness harms health. Research has shown that loneliness is linked to increased blood pressure, cognitive decline, dementia, depression and cardiovascular disease. And we also know that when people are lonely they are much more likely to live the kind of lifestyle that makes us ill – drinking too much, smoking, eating less fruit and vegetables and taking less exercise.

It therefore makes sense to invest in the kind of low level, supportive services that help people keep up their social connections in later life, or which help people to build new friendships and social groups when the transitions of later life – such as retirement, bereavement, or even losing our sight – can rob us of the companionship upon which we’ve previously relied.

The solutions to loneliness are as many and varied as people are. Some people find real benefit from befriending services, or organised interest groups, while others simply want help with practicalities like transport – to help them keep up with old friends and family.

It is so important that loneliness is recognised as the challenge to public health, and prioritised for action alongside the other big health challenges like obesity and smoking. After all, loneliness and isolation have been shown to have a greater impact on mortality than obesity, and weak social connections are as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Fortunately the Yorkshire and Humber region is home to some authorities which have really grasped the nettle when it comes to loneliness. For example, the North Yorkshire Health and Wellbeing Board is seeking to develop and test a range of new approaches to reducing loneliness and isolation. But other areas – like Leeds and Kirklees – are yet to acknowledge the importance of loneliness in their plans – despite the great w ork of the Neighbourhood Networks in Leeds, or the Kirklees social prescribing scheme, through which GPs are able to link up their lonely patients with help from the voluntary sector.

We are delighted to be working alongside the Yorkshire Post on this vital campaign. We hope that it will encourage everyone in the region to think more about loneliness, about how it affects them, and the people around them. We hope that more readers will join the Campaign to work with us to make Yorkshire and Humber the leading region for action on loneliness, and will seek out opportunities to work with us, and our partners, to take practical steps to tackle loneliness in our communities.

To become a supporter of the campaign visit: www.campaigntoendloneliness.org.uk

• Kate Jopling is director of the Campaign to End Loneliness.