The last three years have seen an increasing focus on the health impact of loneliness, with even that normally unsensational journal The Economist highlighting “heart attacks, strokes, cancers, eating disorders, drug abuse, sleep deprivation, depression, alcoholism and anxiety” as some of its associated morbidities in a recent article.
So it seems fitting in Christmas week to take stock. After all, the archetypal loner, Ebenezer Scrooge, is one of the most recognisable characters of the season. His reclusive behaviour actually bred a wiry resilience that was only beaten down by supernatural visitations (unless we take these to be psychiatric manifestations; but where is the literary potential in that if you can dispense with the ghost of Christmas past with a carefully regulated dose of clozapine?).
Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Loneliness appointed nearly a year ago has by all accounts been swamped with people sending her their experiences, and also by officials in other countries who want to find out what she is doing. Inevitably this leads to the citing of sound-bite outcome measures (Huffpost in July reported her as praising the Co-Op Funeral Chain in glowing terms for starting a bereavement club that has led to two marriages no less). But it is a big issue and the health impact is real, albeit too easily generalised with simple and depressing categorising of the conditions it might produce.
We have known for some time that loneliness is not just a matter for older people. The stereotype of an old lady with a budgie and no visitors may still be true, but the young have their own, increasingly significant issues to deal with. Over-use of social media in particular can reinforce negative self-comparisons and lower some people’s self-esteem, even to the point that they become locked into a downward cycle that can make them pathologically reclusive. It’s an important strand that health and care strategies will need to address, and here in Surrey Heartlands as part of our thinking around the wider determinants of health.
A broad government strategy identifying causes and possible solutions (“A Connected Society”) was published by Crouch’s office in October but focused heavily – as the title implies – on community based solutions. It also, inevitably, had the misfortune to become lost in the noise surrounding Brexit, somewhat ironically ending up isolated by more dramatic news. It does however contain, in its preface, the following useful statement:
“One of the best ways of tackling loneliness is through simple acts of kindness, from taking a moment to talk to a friend to helping someone in need.”
If ever there was a time of year for taking such a statement to heart, this is it. We can all make little interventions, with family members, neighbours and people in the street that lift their day and chip away at their isolation. And in so doing we can reduce the burden of ill health in society, become part of a mass movement that puts human connectedness back where it belongs (above digital connectedness) and embrace Tiny Tim’s sentiments: God bless us one and all.
So as we approach the festive season, with its usual excesses and social activities, spare a thought for those less fortunate than yourself and those who might benefit from a kind word or two.
Dr Claire Fuller
Senior Responsible Officer
Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership