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Despite all our new communication modes, people are lonelier than ever

Loneliness is as prevalent in the young as it is in the old, it just manifests itself differently, writes Dr Keith Swanick.

PRIME MINISTER THERESA May’s recent decision to appoint Tracey Crouch as Minister for Loneliness in the UK was borne out of the legacy of the late Jo Cox.

Prior to her untimely murder in the summer of 2016, Jo Cox, as an MP, had campaigned for the establishment of a Commission on Loneliness. In her own words 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 conversation about the scale and impact of loneliness in the UK has been sparked. Almost every picture I have seen of the late MP is of her smiling, with a friendly, warm, welcoming smile, a person you would be ‘happy to chat’ to.

When I first spoke on the issue of loneliness in Seanad Éireann in October 2017, I referred to the scientific, medical and, indeed, public policy research on the issue of loneliness and isolation which suggests “a lonely person is significantly more likely to suffer an early death than a non-lonely one”.

As a nation, Ireland is ageing with the percentage of people over 70 growing faster than the rest of the population. Loneliness is not confined to the old as the rise in single-person households plus the increased pressures on young people are also contributing to the risk of loneliness.

The importance of personal contact and human interaction with others cannot be superseded by technology alone. We are awash with communication options – Facebook, FaceTime, Skype and Snapchat, to mention just a few – but, despite all these communication modes, people are lonelier than ever.

We know from psychologists than many young people, who have incredible connectivity online, can experience incredible loneliness, in part because of the absence of meaningful personal and human contact.

‘Real difference between choosing to be alone and loneliness’

A few months ago I was asked why I had started to campaign about the issue of loneliness. It is because I see on a daily basis the profound medical and mental health problems that are often exacerbated by loneliness. There is a real difference between choosing to be alone and experiencing loneliness.

The data that I have seen, about the scale of loneliness in the United States and the UK, should be a wakeup call to everyone in Ireland. In his book Bowling Alone, the political scientist Robert Putman warns that the plummeting stock of our social capital, which is the very fabric of our connections with one another, is a major cause of concern. I believe it is possible for Ireland to reverse the trend towards loneliness, we can do it, one conversation at a time.

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Much of the discussion about loneliness can focus on the elderly and issues such as rural isolation or a lack of services. Loneliness is as prevalent in the young as it is in the old, it just manifests itself differently. Loneliness places no distinction on location – when I worked as a general practitioner in Finglas, the exact same issues of loneliness and isolation existed in the heart of a busy community as they do in rural Ireland. Loneliness never discriminates between young and old, rich and poor or urban and rural.

It is now at epidemic levels, and that is why before Christmas I formally proposed to the Government to establish a Loneliness Taskforce. Such a taskforce should be practically based, focused and time-specific, it should complement the incredible work of NGOs already in this area. In the UK, along with the appointment of a dedicated Minister, the Office for National Statistics will establish a method of measuring loneliness and a fund will be set up to help the UK Government and charities to develop a wider strategy to identify opportunities to tackle the problem.

I too would like to “turbo-charge” our response to the loneliness epidemic in Ireland. The goal of reducing unnecessary loneliness and isolation is a challenge, but it is achievable.

Senator Dr. Keith Swanick is the Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Health and Mental Health in the 25th Seanad.


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