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31 January 2017updated 12 Jun 2018 4:16pm

Is loneliness a disease?

Over nine million people in the UK attest to feeling lonely. British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson and Ian Lucas MP discuss how to end the age of isolation.  

By Rohan Banerjee

Loneliness, according to the British Red Cross, represents a hidden epidemic in the United Kingdom that is negatively impacting on people’s wider health and wellbeing.

It has been deemed as damaging as smoking and obesity by a 2015 report by Nesta and the Cabinet Office, putting an unnecessary additional pressure on already stretched public services.

The same report found that lonely people are 1.8 times more likely to visit their GP, 1.6 times more likely to visit A&E and 3.5 times more likely to enter local authority-funded residential care.

So, how do we define the problem and in an ostensibly well-connected society, what’s causing it? Feeling lonely, UCLA psychologist Letitia Anne Peplau writes, is the “discrepancy between your desired levels of social contact with what you actually achieve.” 

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If humans are naturally social animals, then is the pace of modern life reducing the quantity and, perhaps more crucially, quality of our relationships? For Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson herein is the crux of the issue. “Loneliness is something that someone feels as a result of their lack of connectedness, which is a natural progression of being socially isolated.”

The advancements in technology, though, have surely helped to bridge any such gaps? Adamson curbs his enthusiasm somewhat: “Well, yes, they have to an extent. Social media, for example, has definitely helped in some ways, but at the end of the day, people need a level of physical interaction that the virtual world can’t really provide. 

“There’s a great line from Brian Ferry –‘loneliness is a crowded room’ – and it’s about confidence in your connections and a sense of who you are. What loneliness does is erode that sense of confidence in your identity and therefore leads to stress and anxiety. Over time, that can manifest itself in depression and other mental health issues.”

Indeed, Nesta and the Cabinet Office confirmed that lonely people are 3.4 times more likely to suffer depression and 1.9 times more likely to develop dementia. On a physical side, meanwhile, they are two thirds more likely to be inactive, which may lead to a 7 per cent increased likelihood of diabetes, 8 per cent increased likelihood of a stroke and 14 per cent increased likelihood of coronary heart disease.

Adamson adds: “We’ve also got to consider that there are lifestyle triggers for loneliness. What is often the greatest joy in someone’s life in having children, can sometimes be a period of isolation. You get stuck at home, looking after kids, and having little interaction with other adults.

“Life transitions can be key triggers for loneliness, from retirement to divorce or separation. There are sensory impairments too – loss of hearing, loss of sight. We have to nip these crises in the bud and if you intervene early, you can avoid situations becoming worse, entrenched and chronic.” 

For Ian Lucas, MP for Wrexham and a Red Cross campaigner, the diminishment of community is at the root of the rise of loneliness. He explains: “It’s as much to do with the way that society operates now as it is to do with any medical condition. I think we really have to get people to interact better with each other. I don’t want to idealise the past but we do need a world where you know who your next door neighbour is.

“I also think that family is very important. Having people who are close to you and maintaining that; fundamentally, it means keeping in touch with people. We see nowadays that families are spread out and it’s become more of an event to see your relatives, rather than something that should just happen naturally.” 

Loneliness is frequently associated with old age, but Red Cross research found that over nine million people in the UK reported feeling lonely in 2016. That is almost one fifth of the UK’s total population, which of course encompasses a great many different social groups. Generation Y, or jilted millennials according to Ed Howker and Shiv Malik’s 2010 lament, have as much reason to panic as they do to bask in their privilege.

Technological prowess is tempered by economic uncertainty and the lack of polio is countered by a relentless rise in rent prices. Lucas continues: “I think among young people specifically there is a fear of the future that I don’t think existed when I was in my teens. There was an optimism that isn’t around as much now. 

“There’s a weight of expectation. Youngsters see examples of people who have been successful, at least in a superficial sense, and they don’t feel they can go onto achieve that themselves.

“There’s a lot of hard-fast living that goes on in cities, especially in London, and some of the real quality of life isn’t given a priority. So what you get is people feeling pressured, isolated and anxious. As much as they neglect the support networks they may need, the same networks aren’t there anymore.”

What is the solution to loneliness, then? Adamson insists that the Red Cross is working tirelessly towards one. “Without the right support, loneliness can go from being a temporary situation to a chronic issue and can lead to even more serious problems, both for the individual and wider society. Some of the key preventive measures we’ve been introducing, led by volunteers, have included more community social events and in-home support. We need services to be affordable and help to instil a positive sense of identity.” 

Mental health issues, many of which stem from isolation, are becoming worryingly common in the UK. What’s more worrying is the stigma that still surrounds them. Lucas admits this is a challenge we are yet to overcome.

“Unfortunately a lot of people still think loneliness is something that they’re responsible for as an individual. Maybe they see it as a weakness in their character or personality, so other people don’t want to interact with them. They shouldn’t feel embarrassed, but they do, and we have to work towards changing this perception.” 

And what of the broader impact of loneliness? Beyond the basic appeal to someone’s humanity, how do we convince them that tackling loneliness should be treated as a priority?

Adamson offers: “The first reason it’s important is because it’s the right thing to do. Of course we need to care about every person in our society. We know that kindness has not been evenly distributed in recent times and we have to change our systems to help address that. Still, in today’s world, where public funding has been cut during a period of austerity, we have to build a business case for it as well. 

“Physical and mental health problems can both prove very costly for companies in terms of production or efficiency. We need to explore the correlation between how loneliness can cause cases of high blood pressure or depression. We need to make our corporate partners aware that businesses are not extraneous from this threat and draw them into the fight on our side.”

Using national averages for baseline service usage, Nesta and the Cabinet Office found that the typical ‘cost’ of being chronically lonely to the public was around £12,000 per person over the medium term (15 years). But really, what price can you put on a human life?