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  • Sam

Breaking the Silence: Tackling Loneliness and Building Connected Communities

Almost half of those living in the UK experience loneliness at some point in their lives; almost 10% experiencing it all, or almost all, of the time. Whilst there are some great initiatives to tackle loneliness around, there is much more that could be done to tackle and prevent loneliness.

The government has been on a mission to address loneliness since with their ‘Tackling Loneliness’ project which began in 2018. This included reducing stigma which they aimed to achieve by building the national conversation on loneliness, so that people feel able to talk about loneliness and reach out for help. A number of organisations linked into the theme such as the “turn a nibble into a natter” idea used by McVitie’s. It’s important, however, to remember that loneliness is not a point in time issue which can be overcome by one-off projects, it’s ongoing. From 2019 – 2021 the Government promoted the Let’s Talk Loneliness Campaign encouraging everyone who interacted with people in their homes to try and help overcome loneliness. Whether as a result of that campaign or not, we have one of the best postal delivery people; she always has a minute for a chat, and she brightens everyone’s day particularly with the outfits she wears at certain times of the year, such as Easter and Christmas.

Moving forward, the government plans to work with partners as part of the Better Health: Every Mind Matters campaign, reminding everyone that it’s okay to admit to feeling lonely. However, at Enrych we feel it’s not okay that so many people are lonely. The impact this can have on health and wellbeing can be significant. Everybody, at some point in their life, will experience loneliness. It is about embracing this feeling, and finding a way to talk about it, as the feeling can spiral and become hugely isolating. Writing is a great way to feel like you are connecting with people, through the hope that they will read and take an interest in what you have to say. This is how I imagine, a lot of authors felt, writing novels or stories relating to their feelings. Without any medium to express these things, it can be very difficult to see a pathway away from loneliness; temporary peaks in connectivity to others are fine but no-one wants to feel completely isolated. The focus from the government point of view is on people aged 16-34. If you become lonely when you leave school, it can be difficult not to drift into a cycle of loneliness. One of the things that helps all of us can be work, because work often creates a social network or, at the very least, provides an environment for company during working hours. If young people are supported to move into work, even if this is voluntary opportunities initially, it can help to prevent loneliness and encourage a more socially active lifestyle. Connecting socially is not the easiest of things, especially if you are neurodivergent.

But as I always say, building a culture of curiosity within your organisation is imperative. Ask someone who is diagnosed or presents with a neurodivergent condition: “how can I help to make this a more inclusive space for you?” or “how can I help you to be at your best?” The prospect of moving from high school to college, and then from college to volunteering and so on was not an easy task for me. But I have been given such strong support from my colleagues at Enrych to explore my passions within this organisation, which include raising awareness about neurodivergent conditions in the workplace, and helping to make the world a less lonely place, which can be done, including workplace strategies. I’m delighted to be given the opportunity to lead on these things.

The next part of the government’s approach to tackling loneliness is putting relationships and loneliness at the heart of policy-making. To me, there has to be a real change in their attitude towards this. At the moment, there is a consultation about keeping train ticket offices open. As if closing banks and filling supermarkets with a mass of self-service checkouts weren’t already big enough red flags. If you are any age and had a problem with your bank account or if you were going to visit a friend and your only way to get there was via train and the ticket machine was broken- you can probably see my point. Removing so many points of ‘human’ contact can in itself engender a feeling of loneliness. However in reviewing the practical aspects of introducing more automation and reducing ‘people points’, the indirect consequences (e.g. increasing feelings of isolation) are often overlooked.

Finally, research and extracting evidence from this is the last of the objectives of the government with regards to loneliness. There are a number of groups of people more likely to experience loneliness. I myself fall into that bracket of individuals more likely to experience it. The thing is, even though I have made strides in terms of getting out of the house and joining various things- I very rarely see people within the same age bracket. This can’t be reversed. It is just a fact that there is a bigger community nowadays of those who are aged 65+ and so many initiatives in place to help ensure they are not lonely. . I have recently read a book on the subject of loneliness which talks in depth about men having a big loneliness problem. In fact, according to a YouGov poll, nearly 1 in 5 men (18%) have no close friends. In my own personal circumstances, I have seen the vast majority of people my age move away, and despite how technology has enhanced connectivity, there is only so much comfort I get from a phone or Zoom call. Whilst it was great when Covid restricted social interaction, the way I see it, technology should be a supplement not a replacement to face to face meetings. As a neurodivergent individual, I can also say that the kind of places young people may gravitate towards, aren’t the places I gravitate towards.

Loneliness can be defined as ‘sadness because one has no friends of company’ and there are definitely ways you can increase your social connectivity. I have definitely enhanced mine. I still remain in touch with one of my great friends from my school days and from time to time, I meet one of my friends from college. But mixing with people of all ages is equally as important because it gives you those moments to practice different ways to converse and different levels on which to connect. And adaptability is an important quality to have. Moving forward, I will continue to raise awareness of these issues. My hope is that as a result of raising awareness, groups who perhaps feel at a loss in terms of acceptance and are therefore are more likely to be lonely, will feel like this no more. I want people to feel included and for those who are their leaders and mentors, to show curiosity and integrity in following through on the promises we make. I want to build the foundations of much more connected communities and continue to contribute to this discussion long into the future!

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