Dr Andrea Wigfield, Director Centre for Loneliness Studies, The University of Sheffield.
Before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in the UK – nine million – of all ages, said they felt lonely, either always or often. However, the social distancing, self-isolation, and shielding measures put in place to protect lives, as well as the NHS, may expose more members of the population to loneliness, whilst worsening its affects among those who are already lonely.
Given that lonely people are more at risk of ill-health including dementia, heart disease, depression, stress, lower self-esteem and even suicide, this is not something that we can take lightly. Indeed, the headline that has been in popular usage in recent years has been that loneliness can increase the risk of death by 29%, which is why it is said by some to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
In light of the huge health implications of loneliness we explore how the government’s response to the pandemic, through measures of lockdown, social distancing, self –isolation, and shielding, is likely to affect people’s experiences of loneliness in the next few months. This is the first of a series of blogs by the Centre for Loneliness Studies about the loneliness implications of the pandemic.
How the government’s response might increase and widen experiences of loneliness.
We have been told by the government that we must only go outside for food, health reasons or work, that we should work at home if we can, that if we go out we must stay two metres away from other people at all times, and that we cannot meet others, even friends or family. Most of us accept that this is a necessary response, given the health threat, and resulting impact on the NHS, which is posed by the virus; some advocate that it should have been implemented sooner or should go further with a full lockdown like that implemented in Italy and Wuhan in China. Although the measures will hopefully save many lives, it is also important to acknowledge the wider implications on people’s ability to engage in social interaction, on loneliness, and on longer term health, and to try and promote ways to reduce people’s feelings of isolation and loneliness during this difficult and unprecedented time.
Academic and policy research demonstrates that people’s experiences of loneliness is different from their experiences of social isolation. Social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have, whereas loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship that occurs when there is a mismatch between the desired and actual quantity and quality of social relationships.
Many of those who were already experiencing loneliness, or at higher risk of experiencing loneliness, also fall into the government’s category of people who are most at risk from COVID-19 and hence should self-isolate, stay at home at all times, and avoid face-to-face contact for at least 12 weeks. Thus those who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also most vulnerable to a deterioration in their levels of social connections and a worsening of their feelings of loneliness. In response to these challenges, many of the voluntary sector organisations which previously provided loneliness services to these groups are desperately trying to adjust their services to online and telephone instead of face-to-face support to ensure that they can continue offering help. However, the extent to which remote social contact can stave off loneliness remains to be seen.
At the same time, new categories of people are being exposed to the risks of social isolation and loneliness, who may never have been so before. Places and spaces where people usually meet face-to-face to engage in social interaction are no longer open or available, including: workplaces; restaurants; bars, shops; cafes; playgrounds; places of worship; sports stadia; leisure facilities. Furthermore, the requirement of social distancing in the few venues which remain open, such as post offices, supermarkets, and parks mean that even here opportunities for social contact is limited. Yet only a couple of weeks ago they remained the hub of social discourse, facilitating meaningful interaction or meaningful relationships to take place.
We know from our forthcoming research at the Centre for Loneliness Studies that people do not just need social contact but they need the right kind of social contact to prevent them from becoming lonely. We also know that people are potentially more likely to feel lonely if they are not able to experience meaningful interactions or meaningful relationships with other people who are important to them. Thus, as the loneliness services to the most vulnerable, lonely and isolated are transferred to remote support via phone or on-line, and as people who previously experienced daily social interaction have that taken away, we can expect experiences of loneliness to worsen for those are already experiencing it and to widen to sections of the population who have not experienced it before.
The rise of volunteering: a glimmer of hope?
In response to the emerging crisis resulting from the spread of COVID-19 across the county, the UK government recently called for NHS Volunteer Responders, a new group designed to carry out simple, non-medical tasks to support people in England who have been asked to shield themselves from COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions. So far three quarters of a million people have put their name forward for this scheme and they will be carrying out a range of practical tasks, many of which have the potential to reduce loneliness among those who are self-isolating. Alongside this, voluntary sector organisations up and down the country have been calling for more volunteers to work alongside those who already delivery vital services for the most vulnerable. This growth and strengthening of social capital within communities across the country has the ability to moderate the negative consequences of loneliness among those self-isolating but also to prevent those who volunteer from becoming lonely in this period of lockdown and social distancing. Indeed we know from research which has evaluated a £6million National Lottery Community funded programme, Time to Shine, in Leeds that volunteering is an activity itself which can increase the volunteers’ sense of well-being and reduce feelings of loneliness.
So although people’s ability to maintain and develop meaningful interaction and relationships may well have an effect of widening and worsening loneliness, there is a glimmer of hope. People are now talking about loneliness more than ever before, and acknowledging its implications for ill-health. Communities are coming together to support one another, and there has been an up-swell of kindness towards others across the country. The social capital that was experienced in the past, in for example mining communities, may well be starting to re-emerge.
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