There are moments in all of our lives, no matter our age, when we feel lonely. We may notice we don’t have much human contact in our day to day routine or we simply feel alone. Loneliness is an issue that affects the old and the young, the rich and the poor; and needs an effort from a wider community to tackle it. On an individual level, one lonely person can be made to feel better by their friends or family, however in the UK we’re not dealing with small numbers. According to The Campaign to End Loneliness, over 9 million people of all adult ages in the UK feel lonely, either regularly or constantly. There are 1.2million chronically lonely older people in the UK. 3.6 million older people live alone. 2.4 million adult British residents suffer from chronic loneliness. Luckily though, there’s a new policy of “social prescribing” in an effort to combat loneliness, to provide a wider range of care for lonely people.
Feeling lonely may seem like it’s just a natural part of life, but realistically the effects of loneliness are much more severe than most of us may realise. It’s been studied that it can increase your risk of death by 29% and is worse for you than obesity. These are statistics that we should know. We ought to be more aware of the impact that no company or companionship can have. There are too many times when we dismiss our own feelings of loneliness as insignificant or just something we have to “get over”; whereas in reality, it can be doing unseen damage to our physical health as well as our mental.
Loneliness is not a mental health issue in the strictest sense. It is intrinsically linked to many mental health problems, as feeling lonely can be due to mental ill health, but can also be what worsens it. So many of us suffer from it, however we don’t really take concrete action to support each other. We joke about our dependency on TV, but for some television is their main form of company. What causes loneliness specifically is variable and sometimes indeterminable, but that shouldn’t affect the actions we take to treat it. If there was an epidemic of a particular illness like measles, we’d work together to help those suffering. Why do the lonely not get the same effort?
So, what is ‘social prescribing’?
The concept is pretty simple, really: as part of the treatment process, doctors ‘prescribe’ social activities, usually at a reduced price. Patients are then sent to cookery classes, dance lessons or other such sessions in an attempt to get them to make new friends and change the patterns that induce loneliness in their lifestyle. These prescriptions are meant to reduce the need for medication, as due to the nature of loneliness, sometimes the pills that help other mental health issues may not have the same benefits. Loneliness can be improved greatly by environmental factors; so, encouraging lonely people to go out and find a new passion is a great new treatment that understands the bigger picture.
Social prescriptions are also being introduced in the UK as a way to save money for the NHS, as research shows that loneliness increases the strain on services; as the diagram below shows. Therefore, if social activities can have a positive impact on loneliness; it reduces the need for people to go to the NHS which frees up doctors, nurses and services for other patients in need.
Loneliness doesn’t always mean you’re completely isolated from other people. It can strike those who have a support system around them; as a recent “Dear Graham Norton” Agony Uncle article showed: a man in his mid-50s with a family felt lonely. This could be where social prescriptions could come in handy, as his loneliness is not part of a medical condition restricting his socialisation. As Graham Norton mentioned in his reply, “the more time you spend thinking about being lonely, the lonelier you will get”; therefore activity which distracts the mind and engages with new people may be the right solution.
We’re also starting to realise how young people suffer from loneliness, as 86% of millennials reported feeling lonely and depressed in a 2011 study. Those aged between 18 and 25 are surprisingly FOUR times more likely to feel lonely all the time than those over 70. Young people are also those we most expect in our society to be out socialising, pointing towards a desire to interact with other people. Perhaps in the age of social media and high-pressure graduate jobs, young people have forgotten simpler activities – such as line dancing classes or painting lessons – that bring people together.
It appears that no matter who loneliness is affecting, social prescribing might be just what the doctor ordered.