A loneliness epidemic is hitting young British people where it hurts; their homes, at school, in their communities and seeping into psyches.
Isolation causes chronic loneliness in 1.2 million elderly people in the UK, but for many young people, loneliness can mean standing in a crowd, surrounded by people, and still feeling totally alone.
In fact, there are 9 million people in the UK who are always or often lonely. The effect of the loneliness epidemic is as damaging to their health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
While data collected using UCLA’s Loneliness Index states the youngest generation of Americans is the worst affected by the loneliness epidemic, a survey by Action for Children here in the UK found 43 per cent of 17 to 25-year-olds experienced problems with loneliness, and less than half said they felt loved.
An ONS Community Life Survey identified ‘younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area’ as being particularly at risk.
This viral video from The Campaign to End Loneliness explored the effects of isolation:
The Campaign to End Loneliness received much-deserved public support from the government when the Tories pledged to continue the work of Jo Cox and her Commission on Loneliness.
Cox, who was the Labour MP for the Batley and Spen constituency until her murder at the hands of a far-right extremist in June 2016, insisted ‘young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate’.
Her beliefs continue to be a guiding principle for the commission, according to Labour MP, Rachel Reeves and Conservative MP, Seema Kennedy, who now co-chair the cross-party group.
As the commission’s findings were published in January, Theresa May PM appointed Tracey Crouch as the UK’s first-ever minister for loneliness, upon the report recommendation.
Four months later and it’s Mental Health Awareness week in Britain. To mark the week, the Mental Health Foundation is asking how we’re coping with stress.
You can find out more about how to combat stress in this video:
So, UNILAD Asked The Minister For Loneliness What She’s Doing To Stop The Loneliness Epidemic
UNILAD: What is the government strategy to combat the loneliness epidemic in young people?
Tracey Crouch MP: The first thing to say is it’s early days. The strategy will come out of the conversations we’re having cross-government, so is not due for a while yet.
But we are very conscious, thanks to the work Jo did in Parliament before she was tragically murdered, of the wider impact of loneliness having previously focussed predominantly on older people.
Understandably, policy makers in the past have been focussed on the older population – perhaps because of it’s prevalence – but also the incidences of how lack of mobility in older people can lead to social isolation, which is different to loneliness.
One very much lead to the other, and I think what we’re seeing now is that reflection of the stats in America but also the stats here, showing younger adults are reporting feeling more lonely, more often.
UNILAD: Do you intend to start a campaign designed to help young people, as The Campaign To End Loneliness helps the older generation?
Tracey Crouch MP: One of the things we need to be looking at, whether it’s the campaign to end loneliness or the work that Mind, the mental health charity have done, is to try and reduce the stigma of talking about loneliness.
If you think back to ten years ago, you didn’t talk about mental health. Now, although there’s still a long way to go, we’re talking about mental health in a much more open way.
I’d like to get to the point where we talk about loneliness in a much more healthy and comfortable way so people don’t feel they’re being stigmatised.
Everybody will go through feeling lonely at some point in their life, and that’s not always necessarily a bad thing, but when it gets to a point of harm then that’s when it becomes damaging to our health and to your integration in a community.
UNILAD: How are you using your influence across departments to combat loneliness by improving our dying services such as community arts and leisure, sport, public spaces, and transport?
Tracey Crouch MP: We’ve got a lot of work to do. The issue is vast and because there’s no single cause, there’s no single solution so it’s quite difficult to put together a strategy in that way.
It covers so many different departments and how policy impacts different parts of society in those departments. Sometimes I do feel slightly overwhelmed by the challenge ahead of me. But at the same time, it’s an enormous privilege to be taking on this work.
We’ve already set up a ministers’ group, and met a couple of times. We have civil servants from across the whole of Whitehall who are working specifically on this issue, bringing specialist knowledge from their departments to the team.
We want people to understand, if they make a policy decision, the potential impact on loneliness that policy decision may have, but we’re in the very early stages of all these discussions.
UNILAD: Do you think young people are lonelier now because we’ve been forced into short-term housing arrangements, have less disposable income and fewer public services under your government?
Tracey Crouch MP: I think it’s difficult to tell. As I said earlier there’s no single cause and therefore no single solution.
Loneliness is a very subjective emotion and what might work for one person might not work for another. What might impact on one person might not impact on another. I think it’s difficult to say.
Despite 16-24-year-olds being one of the most digitally-connected generations we’ve ever seen, their connectivity outside the digital sphere is less. They perhaps need to go a bit analogue for a while!
This is one of the challenges: As a government, you can’t tell people to put down their smartphones and talk to others but you can actually try to support the services out there and make those opportunities attractive.
For example, those who go to university have different pressures on them from when I went to university. The social network you may have formed twenty years ago at university is not necessarily the priority now of this age group.
Or when you move into a new city or two for work, potentially, you’re losing connections you had. People could say there’s a sport club or, for a younger age group, scouts and explorers and this, that and the other.
But they might not want to go and play football or do any of these things which can connect you to other people. Our job is to make sure people find those opportunities attractive enough to want to join them.
What are you doing to help BME communities, young women and other minorities combat the economic challenges, hate crime and harassment which contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness?
Tracey Crouch MP: Again, we certainly are looking at all sections of society. The report made it clear there are specific groups in society feeling isolated from their communities for a variety of reasons.
That’s why I’m working with governments across the whole of Whitehall as well as colleagues who are responsible for those issues, so it works two-way.
I have colleagues looking specifically at loneliness working with colleagues in the Home Office who are looking at hate crime, and in other departments looking at other areas of inclusion so I can bring discussions to them as well.
UNILAD: How do you reconcile your own party’s politics, which foster individualism, with your bipartisan role in this commission to end loneliness through community?
Tracey Crouch MP: Well, I wouldn’t agree with the premise, actually. As somebody who is very comfortable with their views and their principles, I’ve worked very hard to make foster the idea of community.
A lot of work I do across my portfolio, but also previously as a back bencher has been about looking after people and supporting people both as individuals but also within the communities where they live.
UNILAD: Undoubtedly Brexit will make some young people feel isolated from their communities and their government. Have you any provisions in place to alleviate the fallout?
Tracey Crouch MP: Not at all, actually, because the issue of loneliness has been raised before Brexit. This is an issue that has engaged and enlightened conversations across the world which have nothing to do with Brexit, so I disagree with the question.
When we develop domestic policy across Whitehall we’re looking to prevent negative impact on the whole of society.
But I think we need to remember young people did vote for Brexit as well. This issue is incredibly important across the whole of the country and not just in the Metropolitan areas of London.
UNILAD: In light of the Windrush scandal, how can we preach the health benefits of connectivity when, as a country, we have been complicit in furthering global isolationism and separation?
Tracey Crouch MP: I’m not sure I quite understand your question. If you look at the Jo Cox commission report, one of the groups they did identify as vulnerable to loneliness was refugees.
So again, we’re working with the government and my Home Office colleagues to make sure we support refugees in feeling they can integrate. With my civil society hat on I distribute lots of funding to various organisations that help with this community integration.
They are absolutely brilliant and they support people day-in-day-out to try and make sure people feel very welcome and engaged in their communities.
UNILAD: Have you faced scepticism about your role as Minister For Loneliness?
Tracey Crouch MP: No, not at all, actually. I’ve had really positive engagement. Ultimately, there is a real global interest and a shift in recognition of the impact loneliness has on people’s lives, and the cost that has on funded services.
The global response to my appointment has been quite fascinating. Clearly this is not unique to the UK. North America has shown interest, as has Australasia, and Scandinavian countries as well.
It’s interesting how developed countries are really worrying about the issue of loneliness and the impact its having on other public services like the health department.
I think that makes it even more important we do deal with this. The health impact of loneliness is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We basically want to support people.
I’m not going to solve this by myself, and certainly central government shouldn’t be alone in solving this. We have to work with local government, charities, volunteers, media, and businesses and other partners.
I can’t wave a magic wand and solve this overnight. It’s going to be a longterm challenge.
UNILAD: Have you faced loneliness yourself?
Tracey Crouch MP: I’ve never really felt acute loneliness but just after the birth of my son, despite having an excellent partner and a strong family and friend network, there were always times when I felt lonely.
The way I dealt with that was to go for a walk up to the local supermarket with him, where I could have a conversation with somebody behind the check-out; a different kind of conversation.
I wouldn’t say I felt acute loneliness in the way Jo spoke about and in the way many people I’m speaking to now are feeling.
But if someone reading this interview recognises that actually what they’re feeling is loneliness and they want to do something about it, then that is a short term win.
Crouch concluded by telling UNILAD she hopes a strategy to fight the loneliness epidemic will be published at the beginning of 2019.
A long term win awaits.
Talking is often the first step to moving forward. While talking about mental health is vital, UNILAD are calling for action this Mental Health Awareness Week.
We are petitioning the government to improve mental health services offered on the NHS for young people, who sometimes have to wait ten years from the moment they experience their first symptoms to get adequate treatment.
We have written to Jeremy Hunt MP to tell him about our petition and demand the government take action. You can help by signing our petition, in partnership with WHOLE, here. To find out more about our campaign you can read our manifesto.
You can speak to someone confidentially about your mental health and wellbeing by calling one of the following numbers: Samaritans – 116 123 , Childline – 0800 1111 (UK) / 1800 66 66 66 (ROI), Teenline – 1800 833 634 (ROI).