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Why we need a minister with responsibility for loneliness

In the most interconnected period in history people are lonelier than ever writes Senator and GP Keith Swanick.

I SEE MY my primary role as that of a rural GP. I see, on a daily basis, the profound physical and mental health problems that are exacerbated by loneliness.

The loneliness campaign launched in June is a deeply personal issue for me. 

One of the primary findings in the Loneliness Taskforce Report – A Connected Island, An Ireland Free from Loneliness – was that Ireland should have a minister with
responsibility for loneliness.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch as Minister for Loneliness, borne out of the legacy of the late Jo Cox MP. Prior to her murder in 2016 by a far-right extremist, Jo Cox had campaigned for the establishment of a Commission on Loneliness.

She wanted to “turbo-charge” the response to loneliness.

Through the ‘Happy to Chat’ campaign and the fantastic work the ‘Jo Cox Commission’ continues to do, a national effort to combat loneliness has been sparked in the UK.

We received 310 submissions during our consultation earlier this year. Submissions came from rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural. This is just one example of what was sent to us:

I live in pure isolation at home, countryside, no friends, cannot go anywhere, no neighbours. It is ten years since I was on a holiday … and over 20 years since I visited my local town at night-time. I would love to go for dinner in a restaurant but sitting there on my own would destroy me. No one goes out on their own. I have a good job but isolation is also at work in the public sector where there are ‘cliques’ at work. They talk about their kids, great husbands and holidays but when you don’t have any of this, you are excluded. I just want to be loved but have no way of meeting anyone. I pray and visit the church for my sanity but that is of little use when the loneliness is destroying me. 

Unfortunately, there were too many submissions like this one.

By every known standard, Ireland is a healthy, wealthy and well-educated country. We have more opportunities to connect through technology than ever before. Yet, in the most interconnected period in history, people are lonelier than ever.

Personal contact and human interaction cannot be superseded by technology alone.

Loneliness is the most unrecognised health crisis of this generation. The scientific, medical and public policy research acknowledges this. Loneliness is as fatal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it more dangerous than obesity.

So what can be done?

We need to raise awareness about the medical, economic and societal implications of
loneliness. We need to engage people who may be lonely or at risk of being lonely, to
encourage them to get active, to join a group.

We have an individual responsibility to help the vulnerable. Ireland is blessed with an
incredible volunteer spirit and network of organisations that can help alleviate loneliness.

It is not the primary function of the GAA, Tidy Towns, the ICA, or any community organisation – but it is an important aspect for them all.

Most importantly government needs to recognise the role it has to play.

My Fianna Fáil Seanad colleagues and I are calling on the government to implement the
findings of the Loneliness Taskforce Report:

  • Dedicate €3 million to a public campaign, funding initiatives and research to combat loneliness
  • Allocate a Government Minister with specific responsibility for loneliness
  • A public campaign to encourage those feeling lonely to seek support from a GP, raise awareness of the negative health implications of loneliness, and prompt citizens to engage with those most vulnerable to loneliness
  • Specific funding for community initiatives to combat loneliness
  • Specific funding for Irish based research

We are presently failing to face up to Loneliness as a society.

The past twenty years have seen an increase in societal dislocation as declining memberships in voluntary organisations and charities, emigration and urbanisation have disrupted traditional communities.

We need to take ownership of this issue and tackle it head on.

Keith Swanick is a Fianna Fáil senator and GP. 

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