Last Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Member of Parliament Tracey Crouch as the country’s (and the world’s) first Minister of Loneliness to address the long-overlooked problem of social isolation. The move is a response to one of the recommendations made by The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, a project that was started in honor of MP Jo Cox who was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016 and who was passionate about “helping the millions of people across the UK who suffer from loneliness.”
The commission found that nine million Britons across all age groups experience social isolation either “often” or “always,” a number they call — in typical English fashion — “worryingly high.” The concern is not just about these people’s quality of life, but also their physical and mental health. According to studies in the U.S. and U.K., social isolation can lead to earlier mortality rates in seniors, poor diet and exercise and less willingness to visit the doctor. In adolescents, high social media use is linked to increased feelings of perceived isolation.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 17, 2018
In Canada, a 2017 study by the National Seniors Council found that seniors who live alone, have disabilities, identify as LGBTQ, live in poverty or in remote communities are at high risk for feeling the negative effects of social isolation. A 2016 study found that almost 70 per cent of young adults in university feel “very lonely” and even “so depressed it was difficult to function.” Loneliness has also been called the “biggest health threat facing middle-aged men.”
British Columbia’s seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie points out that the number of services you can perform online without any human contact whatsoever is also contributing to feelings of isolation for all ages. Little encounters you might have had even five years ago at the bank or grocery store are eliminated with the ease of online banking and online grocery shopping.
The Minister of Loneliness position in the U.K. will work with the Jo Cox commission along with businesses and charities to create a government strategy for combating social isolation. The U.K. Office of National Statistics also announced that they will be devising a method of “measuring loneliness” in order to tackle the problem more accurately.
Good to see the government appointing a Minister for Loneliness – action must now be taken to combat loneliness, which is often a cause of mental ill health and can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day: pic.twitter.com/b88G9FE9Cm
— Mental Health Fdn (@mentalhealth) January 17, 2018
An editorial in the Toronto Star makes the case that Canada should also be addressing what looks to be a problem that will only grow over time. While the Editorial Board does not think we need to go so far as to create a Ministry of Loneliness, it suggests that isolation in Canada cannot be ignored. The first step would be to work at de-stigmatizing the issue since so many people “suffer in silence.” Then, like Britain, we would have to look at programs that could bring people together in a way that would allow and encourage those who feel isolated to comfortably interact.
We’re already on the right track on the de-stigmatization front, it seems. In 2017, Canadian designer Marissa Korda created The Loneliness Project, a website dedicated to telling the stories of people who feel isolated with the goal of showing others who feel the same way that they are not alone. She collected the stories over several months and continues to grow the project and website as more people submit.
“Loneliness is a thing we don’t talk about, but what this influx of stories has shown me is just how universal it is,” Korda writes online, “It’s very human to experience loneliness at times and it doesn’t need to be as isolating as it is. Our stories have tremendous power, and in starting conversations about loneliness we can combat isolation and cultivate compassion – for others, but also for ourselves.”