Loneliness has become a social epidemic and a public health crisis. If we are to tackle it, we need a better welfare state—and a renewed sense of communityby Rachel Reeves / December 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Loneliness has become a social epidemic. For many, Christmas is about joy and time with our families. For others, it can be one of the loneliest times of the year. Later this week, we will be publishing the manifesto of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and setting out our ideas on how Government, and we as a society, can help tackle this problem. It’s not just about finding solutions; it’s also a time to ask what kind of society do we want to live in. Jo had already taken the first steps to setting up the Loneliness Commission before she was tragically killed. For Jo, however big and complex a problem there was always a solution to it. And loneliness is a big and complex problem. Politics can sometimes get arid and the commission is a great antidote to that. We talk about love, friendship, relationships, connections—the things that matter deeply to people. We’ve forged new friendships too across the floor of the House. There is indeed a case where we have more in common. I’d like to follow Jo’s lead: I’d like to talk about what loneliness is, and what we can do about it. The ‘shocking crisis’ of loneliness In the last few decades loneliness has escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic. Loneliness is not simply about being alone or in solitude. If we find ourselves alone when we don’t choose to be, and if our isolation from those around us persists, we will feel lonely. And because it is a stigma, we don’t want to admit to it and we avoid talking about it. An eighty-year-old woman is housebound. She has no visitors. She sits day after day in her chair in her tiny flat. From her chair, the window is too high to see out of and so there is only the television. She smokes. She waits for the phone to ring. It doesn’t. A young girl checks her texts, Instagram, Facebook. There is still nothing new. She “likes”, but no-one “likes” back. A single man in his forties has lost his job. He feels as if he has been banished and there is no way back into his old life. A teenager with learning disabilities feels his difference acutely; the sadness that he will never be like the other girls and boys. He tells no one. A young mother suffers depression and in her seemingly endless days alone with her baby she sees no-one. No-one knows her anguish, guilt and fear. A widow suffers grief, and in her grief she cannot get over her loneliness. A husband divorced and separated from his children feels he has lost the meaning of his life. A student away from home for the first time has not made a friend and wakes in the night panicked. Will she meet someone? She tries to imagine who that might be. A disconnected society These situations are not just painful for the individual; they effect us all. Loneliness has become a public health issue. We know that being lonely is associated with an impaired immune system. Loneliness causes an increased incidence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. It raises levels of cortisol in the body which can lead to depression and anxiety. We are living in a disconnected society. Poverty is increasing and it isn’t just about deprivation, it also means isolation. Many of our traditional rites of passage into adulthood have disappeared. More and more of us live alone. Increasingly, we work at home, or in a van with just a stylus and tablet for company. The institutions that once brought us together—trade unions, churches, the local pub, the workplace—are now marginal, or they have changed out of recognition. Consumer culture offers endless choice. More and more it provides what we want when we want it, but it can leave us emotionally unsatisfied. Social media can have the same effect, dividing people from each other and reinforcing differences. We check our Facebook, email, Instagram, while in meetings and while we are with our children, our family, our friends. We are looking for that special message to satisfy our need. Like addicts, we are fully available to our devices but not to the people around us. A new welfare state I believe we need a new model of welfare state. The crisis of loneliness exposes the limits of our welfare system. If William Beveridge was alive today, I believe he would identify loneliness as one of his great evils. Alongside the need for bread and health he would add the need for attachment and connection. And he’d follow up on his belief in voluntary action and give more power and control to people. “Our teachers, social and housing workers have been turned into cogs in a machine” Our teachers, social workers, probation officers, employment and housing workers are the builders of a better society. But they’ve been turned into cogs in a machine, spending their time on meetings, testing, assessing, referring, auditing and filling in questionnaires, forms and reports. They want to make a difference, but too often nothing changes. Our welfare system is stretched to the limits and too many people have been pushed to theirs after years of austerity. But, as well as more money, we need a new kind of welfare system that acts as a convener bringing people together to help them help themselves, and uses the transformative power of relationships to change people’s lives for the better. Three strategies for a more connected society Loneliness is part of our human condition. But we can reduce its prevalence and tackle the obstacles to overcoming it. First: a cultural strategy Scholars at Southampton University have found that it is the most resilient individuals who faced with loneliness are best able to use nostalgia to restore their social connections and protect their mental health. Popular culture is full of nostalgia: music, TV programmes, film, even hobbies like making family trees and local history projects, all use nostalgia to strengthen our social connections in the present. In my own constituency, Bramley History Society helps tell the story of our city suburb. Campaigning to preserve local institutions like the Baths and Library, we tell how their story is part of our shared identity. Place, where we are from, is important for us all. It helps us describe who we are and where we fit in. In our disconnected society, we need to value the benefits of nostalgia and find ways of using it to create shared meanings of belonging and identity. Second: a strategy for character In 1939, three years before the Beveridge report was published, John Bowlby, Emanuel Miller and Donald Winnicott sent a letter to the British Medical Journal. It was war, and the authorities had begun to evacuate children from the cities. They warned of the risks to very young children, in whom separation could cause “an emotional black-out” and “very serious and widespread psychological disorder.” Bowlby and Winnicott went on to transform popular understanding of the early life of children and the need for attachment and relationships. Their work has taught us the psychological and moral qualities our children need to thrive. Children who flourish and who have resilience when things get tough are those who have had good attachment in early life and who know they are worth being loved. We need to invest in early years to ensure all children have the capabilities to communicate their needs, make relationships, and to play. That’s why schemes like Sure Start and Children’s Centres matter so much. Expanding Citizens Service for teenagers can also help teach young people how to make connections with others and so gain emotional skills and self-confidence; and why not expand this service to older citizens to draw on their wisdom and experience? Third: a community strategy Social change needs millions of small changes. Jo always looked out for other people. If everyone lived life like Jo the world would be a better place. Today much of the county is covered by snow. And people in the street strike up conversations: people even knock on a neighbour’s door to check they are ok. We call this the “permission of snow.” But it ought not take an unusual event for us to feel we can say hello or call in on a friend or neighbour. We need to create new institutions, services and organisations that connect people with one another. Community-led projects are at the forefront of the campaign against loneliness. In my own constituency in Leeds, Bramley Lawn has been transformed from a struggling day centre into a thriving hub running support for people with dementia, and bringing together young and old in a wide range of activities. Local anchor institutions such as businesses and universities can work with community organisations and act as social connectors in their local areas. Businesses can use apprentice schemes as connector programmes. Linking apprentices to each other means networks across social divides can be created. Social media and new technologies provide the means for an exponential explosion of connectivity if we are willing to put people before the maximisation of profit. Looking ahead… The Loneliness Commission and our 13 partner organisations along with hundreds of other groups are in the forefront of campaigning to make loneliness an issue that people care about. We want central and local government to play a role in reducing the levels of loneliness by measuring the impact of their services and policies on social connection. Our ambition is simple: everyone can live a life less lonely. This article is adapted from a speech given by Rachel Reeves MP to Policy exchange, “Throwing New Light on Loneliness”.