(London) More and more people feel lonely. To the point where several countries, including Canada, now consider loneliness as a public health issue. Since 2018, the UK even has a Minister responsible for Solitude. We went to see what inspiring solutions, and quite easy to reproduce, the British have found to fight this silent epidemic.
Holly Cooke has always dreamed of living in London. Originally from Stoke-on-Trent, a medium-sized town north of Birmingham, the young woman moved to the capital after her university studies, eager to enjoy her pleasures. But after a few weeks, she quickly realized that it was not easy to make friends in this big city. “I was tired of doing everything on my own,” she told me in an interview. After a few failed attempts on dating apps that offered the “friendship” option, she decided to start her own group.
“I started with a Facebook message, an invitation to meet in a restaurant to eat pancakes, says this worthy representative of Generation Z, now 26 years old. I asked a friend who lived 30 minutes from London to come with me in case I was the only one showing up. Finally, we were four, five. I repeated the experiment: every month we were always five or six girls. By the end of the first year, the London Lonely Girls Club had 500 members. »
Then the pandemic arrived and it was as if someone had stepped on the accelerator. “At the start of 2022, we were 10,000 and by the end, over 20,000! Today, the club has 31,000 girls! You have to organize five or six activities a month to meet the demand,” adds Holly, who receives invitations to start regional chapters of her club all over England. Not to mention the young men who ask him for a Lonely Boys Club!
London is far from the only city where people feel alone. Everywhere on the planet, the trend to live alone is progressing, especially in large centers. According to the Canadian Social Study conducted by Statistics Canada, the proportion of people living alone had doubled in 20 years in the country, increasing from 5% to 10% between 1981 and 2021. And it is in Quebec that it is most obvious: almost 1 in 5 people (19%) lived alone in 2021. Of these, 1 in 10 said they felt “always or often lonely” during the pandemic.
To those who believe that loneliness is an experience only for old people, think again: young people feel it too. Blame the screens? More and more young people say they have difficulty forming friendships.
Does the name Jo Cox ring a bell? The death of this British elected official, shot dead in June 2016 by a white supremacist while on her way to a political activity in the town of Birstall, has gone around the world. In the United Kingdom, this Labor MP was known for her commitment and her inclusive approach to politics, a kind of British version of Véronique Hivon. During her door knocking, Jo Cox had found that people felt a great need to talk, that she often had their first and only conversation of the day with them.
“Jo realized that loneliness was a real problem in our country,” her sister, Kim Leadbeater, told me. She decided to set up a multiparty commission to study the issue. Loneliness is stigmatized, people were embarrassed to talk about it. The commission has launched a real national discussion. Unfortunately, Jo didn’t survive to see the results…”
The commission’s report, tabled at the end of 2017, put loneliness on the map in England. It recommended real government leadership, indicators to better understand the phenomenon, a fund for research and clear objectives for each ministry.
Today, Kim Leadbeater co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness with Tracey Crouch, the first Minister of Loneliness appointed by Theresa May’s government. Its mission: to ensure that the recommendations of the commission are implemented.
This former physical education teacher, who ran for office in the constituency once represented by her sister, has made it her mission to continue the work of her eldest who died too soon, and to fight the rise of violence in British society. Because for her, there is no doubt that there is a link between the two.
“These people – like the man who murdered my sister – tend to isolate themselves,” observes the MP, who receives me in her office, a stone’s throw from Westminster, where Parliament sits.
“If someone has no sense of belonging and identity that ties them to their community,” adds the MP with conviction, “extremist groups will provide one, believe me. »
“We are not equal when it comes to loneliness,” Olivia Field, head of policy at the British Red Cross, reminds me. The organization is very involved in the fight against isolation and intervenes in the field with the most vulnerable populations.
“Loneliness hits twice as hard in inner city neighborhoods,” Field continues. And it has profound impacts on individuals. It’s been proven that people who don’t have a social network are less resilient when things get tough. »
Loneliness doesn’t just impact our morale and mental health, it also has measurable effects on our physical health. A study funded by the National Institute of Aging in the United States, often quoted in the media, claims that chronic loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Our cardiovascular health, our immune system, our risk of developing Alzheimer’s and even our life expectancy are influenced by loneliness.
“Since the adoption of a national strategy to counter loneliness, each ministry must include it in its analysis, specifies Olivia Field. Loneliness must be part of the reflections when the time comes to adopt public policies. In housing, that means building buildings that promote gatherings and community. In transportation, it is to consider not only trips to work and school when planning, but also social activities. Loneliness becomes an analysis grid in itself. »
Grace Thomas works at One Westminster, an umbrella organization for 200 community or charitable organizations in the central London borough. After studying psychology and sociology, the young woman discovered social prescription, an approach developed in the United Kingdom in the 1990s which consists of supporting more vulnerable individuals in their quest for well-being. Instead of prescribing a drug, you are “prescribed” an activity, a service, an accompaniment. “The person is referred to us by a medical professional, usually their family doctor,” the young woman explains to me. We meet her to establish what we can do to help her get better, to be happier. »
A social prescriber will help you find the right resources, but they can also accompany you to a first art class or a sports activity, just to put you at ease. Like a guardian angel, he walks by your side while you fly on your own.
“Sometimes our work resembles that of an occupational therapist,” explains Grace Thomas, who manages a team of five social prescribers working with a clientele of young adults. Ergo focuses on everyday tasks while our intervention is broader. »
The National Health Service (NHS, the equivalent of our Department of Health) trains and pays these social prescribers who work in medical clinics and community organisations. No need for special qualifications, just want to help! There are no conclusive studies yet that show the positive effects of social prescribing, but the NHS is moving forward: last summer it announced the addition of 1,000 more social prescribers to the existing 1,600. We understand that the shortage of medical personnel is not unrelated to this craze, but this is not the only reason that explains the popularity of this approach.
Meanwhile, a small team of researchers from University College London, one of the top-ranked universities in the world, is looking at social prescribing for young adults struggling with mental health issues. “The approach with young people is different,” explains Daniel Hayes, one of the eight researchers involved in the study. From a sample of 600 young people, we want to know which approaches are the most effective for this clientele in order to improve accessibility to this service. »
UK initiatives to combat loneliness are recognized around the world. Japan has followed in England’s footsteps and also appointed its Minister of Solitude. “I don’t think you can completely eradicate it, there always will be,” observes Robin Hewings, program director at the Campaign to End Loneliness, a think tank devoted entirely to loneliness. But if we hadn’t put all these programs in place, there is no doubt in my mind that there would be even more single people than there are today. »
The final word goes unquestionably to Dr. Helen Kingston, a family doctor I met in Somerset, who throws this at me: “Ask yourself how many real friends you have who would bring you soup or visit you at night? if you were in bad shape? You know, we are taught early on to care about our financial capital, but maybe we should also care about our social capital…”