It seems that despite our increasingly connected world, loneliness is not going away – in fact, it’s getting worse. Once considered a problem for the elderly whose family have moved away and whose friends have died, now it is not limited to those in later life. Loneliness is a major cause of mental illness for all ages and all genders. Now, in honour of the late Jo Cox MP who started campaigning for the position, the government has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
Why a Minister for Loneliness?
One of Jo Cox’s legacy was to set up the Commission on Loneliness. In December 2017, it called loneliness a “Giant Evil”, explaining the health problems associated with loneliness as being “as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.” Today, affects 1/10 of us, more than ever before.
• According to a report in December, around half of people in the 75+ age group live alone. That is around 2 million in England alone. Some respondents said they would often go weeks with no human contact
• The problem is not limited to the elderly although this group appears the most affected. Social networks are getting smaller and family support is drying up as each person focuses on their own life problems
• Even people who live alone and work full-time are feeling the effects of loneliness. They are said to be 80% more likely to experience loneliness-related depression. The problem is that work social interactions are simply not enough
The details above contrast with the explosion of social media where many have observed that the younger generation will have thousands of connections on these websites, many of whom they don’t know personally, and only a small number of close friends.
Evidence for social media being to blame is limited and unclear despite the regular insistence of newspapers. Furthermore, the government now realises the economic cost in terms of health expenditure in a time when healthcare budgets are being cut.
Who is the first Minister for Loneliness?
The first appointee to this role is Tracey Crouch, Conservative MP for Chatham & Aylesford. She stated in her first interview since the appointment that she intends to seek input from and work across party lines to tackle this “generational problem”. She is proud to be finally making the issue a government concern following the establishment of the Commission on Loneliness by murdered MP Jo Cox.
It has come at the right time and with prompt action following the report mentioned above. When appointing the MP, the Prime Minister stated the role would “continue Ms Cox’s legacy”. Crouch will work not just with the Commission, but also relevant charities and business organisations too in compiling a strategy.
Government Policy to Blame?
However, those who think this will be an easy role should understand that Crouch has already faced some tough questions on whether government policy is fuelling this problem. Some have challenged library and day centre closures, with local authorities cutting those social events and services due to lower funding.
Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West, pointed the problem squarely at the loss of traditional social gathering places: closure of local pubs, fewer church activities, social activities in the workplace, and weakened trade unions. In the past, many of these were vital for bringing people together. Couple this with the increasing trend for people to work from home (self-employed or as remote working employees) is exacerbating a problem for everyone once limited to the very oldest amongst us.
We are working longer hours and have busier lives with caring and working commitments. Couples now need two incomes to afford a home. All these issues and more will be considered within the scope of the new role.