The UK just announced a long-term strategy to tackle loneliness

Alone by choice?
Alone by choice?
Image: Reuters/Danish Ismail
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In January, UK prime minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness. Today, the government announced a government-wide strategy to tackle the issue.

If it seems slightly out there to have government functionaries address something as fundamental to the human condition as loneliness, some suggest it is because we are failing to bridge the many widening gaps in society. With Brexit looming in Britain, massive cuts in social spending due to austerity, and Donald Trump seemingly intent on dividing more than unifying, a growing chorus is calling for ways to promote the conditions that create more social connections. Also, there is growing evidence that a lack of social connections are linked to early death, on par with smoking or obesity.

Last week, at the 10th annual Campaign to End Loneliness conference, former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy—who dubbed the issue a public health crisis during his term—said that one of the reasons we are now paying more attention to social connections is because they are woven into other persistent health issues, such as addiction and depression. “Some of these seemingly intractable problems, which seem resistant to our simple solutions, have pushed people to ask the question: Is there something deeper happening here, something deeper contributing to depression?” he asked.  “There’s an openness to thinking a little bit more about what’s happening under the surface.”

The UK strategy, laid out in a report (pdf), proposes three actions: invest in research to figure out what causes loneliness, measure its effects, and what solutions work; embed loneliness into broad social policy, but also develop tailored interventions for trigger points, like the loss of a spouse or a job; and create a “national conversation” around the subject.

Within five years, doctors in the UK will be able to engage in “social prescribing.” This uses “link workers” to direct patients to community workers who help identify ways to improve health and well being instead of simply defaulting to medicine. Three-quarters of doctors in the UK say between one and five people come to their practices a day whose main ailment is loneliness. In the UK, about a fifth of people say they are lonely; around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.

The report acknowledges that loneliness is neither new nor curable. “This strategy doesn’t attempt to resist how society is changing or try to turn back time,” it says. “Rather, it looks at what can be done to design in support for social relationships in this changing context.”

Measures to tackle loneliness will be embedded in a range of UK government departments, from housing to business and transport. Companies, including retailer Sainsbury’s, Transport for London, and the British Red Cross, have also committed to developing plans for employees’ well being. The government said it would partner with the Royal Mail on a pilot program in which postal workers check up on lonely people as part of their routine delivery rounds. Schools, which are frequently thrust to the frontlines of solving society’s problems, will be required to teach about “relationships education” starting in September 2020.

The UK government committed £20 million ($26 million) in January to the effort, including an £11.5 million fund to support local and community efforts to foster social connections. Alongside today’s report, the government announced an additional £1.8 million to boost the number of community spaces, including cafes, art spaces, and gardens.

Some people are skeptical that the problem is as severe as all this suggests. Others note the irony of a government massively cutting social services that directly help people, like care homes or early-childhood programs, and then making a fuss about the effects. Evidence on the impact of loneliness is much stronger than evidence on the effectiveness of programs to treat it, which is very thin.

Murthy noted that governments do have a role to play, alongside businesses and schools. But he also said that it’s an issue where action can take place with or without the government. “Unlike many other illnesses, what I find profoundly empowering about addressing loneliness is that the ultimate solution to loneliness lies in each of us,” he said. “We can be the medicine that each other needs. We can be the solution other people crave. We are all doctors and we are all healers.”