Regular columnist and Labour MP for Nottingham East Nadia Whittome discusses loneliness...
There are many things to love about Christmas. The food, obviously. The excitement of unwrapping presents. The traditions, big and small. The cosiness. Personally, I can’t wait to wrap myself in a blanket and watch the same romcoms I’ve seen a dozen times already. But more than anything else, as every Christmas film ever teaches us, the season is all about love and togetherness.
Most people name spending time with family and friends as their favourite part of the holidays. Unfortunately, not everyone will have someone to celebrate with. For the growing number of people in the UK who are struggling with loneliness, this time of the year can be particularly painful.
It feels terrible to be lonely - that would be reason enough to take the problem seriously. However, evidence shows that it can also have wide-ranging health consequences, leading the WHO to declare it a ‘global public health concern’. Social isolation has been proven to increase the risk of conditions including heart disease, type two diabetes, dementia and depression. One famous study found that the health effects of chronic loneliness are comparable to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
The problem is particularly stark among young people. While one in three people in the UK report sometimes, often or always feeling lonely, this figure goes up to nearly six in ten for those aged sixteen to 24. The pandemic meant that a generation of teens and young adults spent some of their formative years at home, missing out on making friends and developing their social skills. The effects are unfortunately still being felt.
Austerity and the growing cost of living play a part as well. Social activities like going out for food, drinks or to the cinema are no longer affordable for many. Youth services, which once provided opportunities for people to get together, have been cut to the bone - from 2010, they lost 74% of their funding in ten years. University or college can be a great place to meet people - but sky-high rents and insufficient government support means that many spend time after class working until late, rather than socialising.
However, young people are not the only ones struggling. Nearly half of all people over 65 say that television or pets are their main forms of company. Disabled people are at a greater risk of feeling isolated, as are their carers. Loneliness is also common among LGBTQ+ people, who are more likely to be estranged from their relatives. Studies show that poverty and inequality contribute to the crisis, and our work culture leaves many people too stressed and tired to focus on relationships.
The government has acknowledged the problem and, in 2018, announced a national strategy to tackle it. However, the funding attached was modest, and the focus was largely on awareness and piecemeal projects rather than ambitious, structural changes. Recently, the government launched a campaign to tackle loneliness at university, advising students to “keep in touch with friends and family over the phone” or to “be open to everyone, as university is a great place to meet people from all different backgrounds.” Perhaps these simple reminders might be helpful to some, but they won’t be much use to those who are exhausted after working long shifts, or who can’t access the mental health support they desperately need.
Addressing loneliness is inseparable from tackling broader problems facing our society: fighting poverty and the cost of living crisis, protecting the right to work-life balance and funding accessible and affordable public transport
Addressing loneliness is inseparable from tackling broader problems facing our society: fighting poverty and the cost of living crisis, protecting the right to work-life balance and funding accessible and affordable public transport. Our cities and towns must be designed in a way that enables us to come together. The government should invest in spaces for people to spend time outside of home or work, such as youth clubs, swimming pools, libraries, parks or playgrounds, as well as volunteering programmes and other activities for people of all ages. It’s also vital to support community spaces like cafes, pubs and social centres, including venues specifically aimed at minority groups.
Charities also have a role to play in helping people feel less alone, and I’m pleased that there’s some fantastic work being done in Nottingham. The Wolfpack Project is a great charity dedicated to tackling youth loneliness, with individual support and social events for people aged sixteen-35 [read more about them on page thirteen]. Base 51 also provides counselling and group activities for kids and young adults aged eleven and over, while initiatives like The Pythian Club, Switch Up or the Community Recording Studio (CRS) help young people develop their skills and build friendships. Age UK organises walking groups and workshops for older residents, whereas the Notts LGBT+ Network has a packed programme of events for members of the queer community. Over the holidays, local organisations will be offering free community dinners, warm spaces and activities for children - check asklion.co.uk for an updated list!
However you’re spending Christmas, I hope it's filled with joy and love - and if you know someone who might be on their own, consider reaching out and making their day. Have a wonderful one and see you in the New Year!
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