Jayne Dowle: A few words this Bank Holiday could save lives of the lonely

Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin and Loneliness Minister, Tracey Crouch, visit a scheme to combat loneliness.
Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin and Loneliness Minister, Tracey Crouch, visit a scheme to combat loneliness.
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FOR countless people, today’s bank holiday will be just another sad day. Nothing brings home the despair of loneliness as much as the feeling that everyone else is out enjoying themselves.

If you’re stuck indoors with the curtains shut while the neighbours hold a raucous barbecue, I doubt that the Government’s recent promise of a £25m “loneliness fund” to help people in areas especially affected by suicide and self-harm will bring much hope.

Announcing the cash injection, Mental Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price said: “Every single suicide is a tragedy – which is why this funding is so vital. Working with the Samaritans and others in high-risk areas, we will make sure people get the care they need as early as possible, because that is what saves lives.”

The first areas to receive their share of this money are the “worst-affected” by suicide and include, in our region, South Yorkshire, Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby. Over a three-year period, funds will be spent on targeted suicide awareness campaigns, special psychological support for people in financial trouble and improved services to help those at risk of self-harm.

It sounds promising. However, it’s one thing to announce funding, and quite another to implement it effectively and ensure that it reaches those who need it the most.

In the first instance, we have to trust Public Health England and local authorities to manage the cash well and to ensure that it is ring-fenced for the purpose for which it is intended. In the second instance, we all have a role to play in maximising its impact.

For too long now, loneliness has been someone else’s problem. However, as the anti-loneliness campaign run very successfully by this newspaper proves, we can start to tackle isolation more effectively when we do pull together, not just through estimable community projects and support groups, but simply by looking out for each other.

This new push should not just reach out directly to those who feel desperate, but inform and educate the rest of us about what loneliness looks and feels like. The stereotype of the sad old lady down the street staring out of her window as the world rushes by exists for a reason – it’s true.

A recent survey carried out by Gransnet, the over-50s social networking site, on behalf of the Jo Cox Commission found that almost three quarters of older people in the UK are lonely, and more than half of those have never spoken to anyone about the way that they feel. Common triggers include children leaving home, retirement and bereavement.

I hope that some of this funding can help address this situation. My friend Betty, who is in her 90s, was bereft when her beloved husband passed away. She lost weight, and was on the verge of losing interest in life itself until Age Concern came along and gave her a reason to carry on.

Now she attends a day centre several times a week, and admits that it has transformed her life. She still spends hours sitting on her own at home, but just knowing that she has friends and activities to look forward to gives her the balance she needs.

However, it is misleading to assume that this is the only kind of loneliness. I’d like to see more education about how to support each in the workplace, for instance. I’ve not worked in an office for years, but I can still recall colleagues who barely spoke and never went out for lunch, eating their sandwiches alone at their desk.

We knew nothing of their lives beyond the office and, to my shame, never bothered to ask. It’s a fine line between concern and interference, but it’s one we perhaps should not be afraid to cross sometimes.

It’s all about becoming more aware, and taking a little time to think of others. All too often we are so wrapped up in our own lives we become totally oblivious to everyone else around us. Yet just a few kind words can make a difference, and make a lonely person feel that someone does care about them after all.

That young mother struggling in the supermarket with three small children. She might not have seen another adult all day, so don’t dismiss her as she stands in line on the verge of frustrated tears. Give her a supportive smile instead of tutting and turning the other way.

That quiet man who lives alone on the corner. Perhaps he does prefer his own company, but that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t appreciate a courteous “good morning” as you pass each other on the way to work.

Who knows? Those two words might just convince him that the world isn’t
the dark and fearful place he imagines it to be when he’s lying awake at 3am plagued by anxious thoughts and feelings of inadequacy. It might just save his life.

If we all treated other people as we wished to be treated ourselves, the world would be a much better place. Think of that this bank holiday, especially if you’re planning to hold a raucous barbecue in your back garden.