Why are BME people more vulnerable to loneliness?

A survey by the Runymede Trust has shown that loneliness varies across ethnic groups.

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It’s an epidemic afflicting around around 9 million people in the UK and yet we have a problem talking about loneliness. With nearly one fifth of the population experiencing social isolation and loneliness, eight months ago, outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May launched a national strategy to tackle loneliness and appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness.

Through national surveys, we now know more about the common risk factors associated with loneliness: living alone, bereavement, people living with long term health conditions, and people who feel they belong less strongly to their neighbourhood. But surprisingly we know little about how loneliness varies between ethnic groups.

This is why the Runnymede Trust (funded by the British Red Cross and the Co-Op Foundation) administered a comprehensive survey of loneliness within the UK between October 2018 to January 2019, ensuring a greater ethnic diversity in the sample than any previous loneliness survey.

The response was astonishing. Nearly 1,000 people responded to sensitive but confidential questions about their experiences of loneliness and belonging, how they were treated at work and also in their neighbourhoods, as well as information about their socio-economic status, age, gender and ethnic backgrounds.

The findings reveal a complex but important picture. On the one hand, loneliness is a common experience across all groups, ages and ethnicities. But just as we have found in previous national surveys, loneliness is more keenly experienced by younger people than older groups, slightly more by women compared to men, more by people who live alone and more by individuals who have experienced bereavement. All these groups appeared to be at greater risk of loneliness compared to their counterparts. But, surprisingly, the results also show us that loneliness varies across ethnic groups.

The survey highlights how some ethnic groups, namely Pakistani and Gypsy Roma and Irish travellers, are more vulnerable to loneliness than other ethnic groups because of their experiences of racial discrimination, because they had less income and because they struggled more with admitting to loneliness.

In fact, the group most likely to be isolated in this survey, at greater risk of loneliness and struggling to admit to their loneliness, appears to be Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller groups.

Importantly, the survey reveals that experiencing bullying and/or racial discrimination in the work place has strong links with experiencing loneliness. Significantly, one out of five respondents reported experiencing racial discrimination at work and in their local neighbourhoods, with more than a third of all BME respondents saying they had experienced racism at work - compared to two percent of white British respondents.

Belonging and wanting to be accepted for who you are strong themes in the Runnymede Trust’s survey: 67 per cent of respondents who felt that they didn’t belong in their local community admitted that they were “often” or “always” lonely, compared to 16 per cent of those who felt they belonged.

Those who described themselves as bisexual were more likely to be lonely than heterosexual groups. And those who felt that they were treated with less courtesy or respect because of particular characteristics, such as being a migrant, ethnic origin or their religion, were also more likely to be lonely than others.

Interestingly, income – particularly not having enough for basic needs, which varies enormously between ethnic groups – Is highly correlated to loneliness: 63 per cent of people who reported that they didn’t have enough money for essentials said they were lonely, compared to 23 per cent of respondents who could afford them. BME respondents in this survey were more likely to struggle to afford the essentials compared to those from white British backgrounds.

Moreover, we found that that, while the stigma of loneliness affected all groups – more than one in three respondents admitted they struggled with sharing their loneliness with others – some BME groups, particularly Gypsy Roma and Irish Traveller, struggled more with admitting to loneliness or talking about loneliness with their friends/family compared to their white counterparts.

This was not the case for all BME respondents in the survey, for example Black African respondents appear to show more resilience than others in admitting to and sharing their loneliness with others.

There are over 8 million ethnic minorities in the UK – roughly the same size as the combined population of Wales and Scotland. Understanding the scale of loneliness in ethnic minorities, and the nuances of social isolation in different BME groups, is hugely important because loneliness is associated with higher likelihoods of depression, dementia, diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease.

Until now we have had little idea of how loneliness varies between ethnic groups. However, the Runnymede Trust’s research shows that this is not only an oversight in terms of identifying accurate risk factors of loneliness across different groups: it also weakens the effectiveness of public services addressing the epidemic of loneliness.

Dr Zubaida Haque is the Deputy Director at the Runnymede Trust, a leading race equality thinktank. She tweets @Zubhaque.

For more information about the survey on loneliness between ethnic groups please contact info@runnymedetrust.org.