Mims Davies (right), the UK’s new Minister for Loneliness, with entrepreneur Aly Taylor
Reports in recent years have highlighted loneliness as one of the leading causes of death, as it can lead to psychological problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders and depression. In the UK, loneliness is now viewed as an epidemic, and the government is investing in ways to solve the problem of feeling alone.
In April 2018, The Independent published an article worryingly entitled, “Loneliness is on its way to becoming Britain’s most lethal condition.” It highlighted the work of murdered MP Jo Cox, who launched a commission on loneliness shortly before her death in June 2016, and the late social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who passed away in March 2018. Both Cox and Cacioppo believed that the UK’s loneliness epidemic was far greater than earlier figures suggested — claiming that up to 9 million adults are suffering from loneliness across the country.
Cacioppo explained loneliness as a fundamentally biological problem with its key causes not in the mind or society, but in the body, with its most profound effect being death.
An analysis of 300,000 people in 148 studies found that loneliness is associated with a 50 percent increase in mortality from any cause — making it comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more detrimental to health than obesity.
In January 2018, in light of Cox and Cacioppo’s findings, UK Prime Minister Theresa May created the first ever role for Minister for Loneliness, which was first taken up by Tracy Crouch and then taken over by Mims Davies in November of last year.
“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” May said when announcing the new position.
Yesterday, 17th June 2019, at the start of Loneliness Awareness Week, and led by Davies, the UK government has launched the Let’s Talk About Loneliness Initiative.
“Let’s Talk Loneliness will encourage us all to engage with this issue, speak up without stigma, spot the signs of loneliness and help build more meaningful connections so people feel less isolated,” she said in a statement.
The programme particularly aims to tackle “the stigma around feeling alone” and encourage people to talk about their feelings, following the findings of a YouGov poll that highlighted the fear of burdening others as one of the main reasons for not reaching out to people when feeling isolated.
It will bring together charities, organisations and businesses, including The Marmalade Trust, Co-Op Foundation (which will see £1.6 million matched with initiatives that support activity in community spaces to promote social connection), British Red Cross, Campaign to End Loneliness, Mind, Public Health England and the Jo Cox Foundation.
Most people associate loneliness with the elderly, but the poll of 2,114 adults showed that on the contrary, young people between the ages of 18 and 24 were the group most likely to identify as lonely, with 75 percent of them saying they often felt alone. In comparison, 63 percent of people aged 55 and over said they never feel lonely.
The YouGov research also shows that people in cities had a higher incidence of reporting feeling lonely, and 25 percent of adults had reported feeling lonely on weekends.
“Loneliness is one of the biggest health challenges our country faces. It can affect anyone at any time and its impact is in line with smoking or obesity. We can only begin to help one another if we feel able to understand, recognise and talk about it,” stated Davies, who is also the Minister for Sport and Civil Society.
The campaign was launched alongside a government-commissioned short film featuring the voices of young people across the UK talking about their experiences of feeling alone. The video that aims to show “loneliness as an emotion that comes with being human and one we should talk about” will be presented on 20 big screens across the country this week.
In a move to stimulate technological innovation, the government is also investing £1 million in a Tech to Connect Challenge Prize in collaboration with the charitable foundation Nesta. The prize aims to find tech solutions to the problem of social isolation.
The loneliness campaign comes days after the BBC’s initiative to spark conversation amongst commuters on public transport in Plymouth.