The Loneliness Epidemic

Picture of Leeds City Centre(Source: Sabena Bibi)

The Conversation Club is a special club. The meetings are inconspicuously held every Thursday afternoon in the Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds city centre. The attendees are the city’s refugees and asylum seekers who come to socialise and connect. Their common bond has created deep friendships. This is a place where complex struggles are shared and discussed with ease.  A flurry of activities are happening around the different group settings, some play cards, others board games and others are having free English lessons run by volunteers. The noise levels increase in the church hall, as more people stream in and laughter and friendly chatter in foreign languages fill the atmosphere.

 Dot Read is the lady in charge of the volunteers, she walks briskly around the room, welcoming attendees and  stops briefly to chat with a group of ladies then turns to me and explains how most  of the people there are in difficult situations and it is not always easy to help them as they only speak basic English.“ There are about 70 people here most weeks, and a lot of them suffer from social isolation because of their status and language barriers, and it is getting worse, they have very limited rights, if at all, they are not allowed to work or study, and this contributes to the state of poverty in the city. They only get £36 a week from the government’’, she adds wearingly.

Asylum seekers, and refugees are part of a growing group of people who suffer from loneliness which can eventually lead to social exclusion. This is also a big and growing problem among the elderly unemployed, lone parents, those with long-term mental health conditions, with physical disabilities and for carers. The latest report published in 2017, by age UK estimates that half of the people aged 75 and over live alone – about 2 million people in England. The UK government has identified loneliness as a generational challenge,  affecting about 9M people both young and old and adds that loneliness is now seen to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

 Lack of social connection in societies and the rise of global capitalism in countries like the UK has been identified as key factors that help to create unequal societies. In these societies, the emphasis is on individualism ‘looking after number one’.  In 2009, a study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that such societies have pronounced levels of mental health problems and concluded that inequality and injustice are deeply toxic. Loneliness has serious psychological effects in individuals. Sufferers will tend to have Self-destructive habits such as drug taking, overeating or relying on alcohol. Other effects are the tendency to not engage in the community and sufferers are unlikely to seek emotional support. Loneliness is also a known factor in suicide.

From an economic perspective in the UK, loneliness and social isolation place a huge burden on public services. “Loneliness has a devastating life-threatening impact on all people of all ages and combined with health dangers of colder weather, it is a lethal combination “, adds Professor Jane Cummings, NHS England’s chief nursing officer. “Loneliness has grown into a social epidemic, not just a personal misfortune “, comments labour MP Rachel Reeves. The campaign to end loneliness estimates one in 10 people is chronically lonely.

Can loneliness be tackled and at what cost and is it worth it? The UK government has come up with strategies to address this and there is a drive to highlight the negative effects it has on the country.  In January 2018, acting on the recommendations of the Loneliness Campaign Commission, the first minister of loneliness was appointed. The Commission was set up in 2015 in West Yorkshire by the late Jo Cox  MP of Batley and Spen. Jo’s was very passionate about tackling loneliness and her most notable quote was “Young or Old, loneliness does not discriminate”.

“Leeds is the UK’s third most populous city and despite having a thriving business community, it is a city of inequalities with a growing gap between the rich and the poor”, cites the Yorkshire Post. “The rate of poverty in a city like Leeds is a scandal. It is unacceptable that life expectancy in Middleton can be almost 10 years less that Weatherby”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has repeatedly warned against vast inequalities in societies as they create social Isolates, which in turn have more pronounced levels of Mental Health problems.

These sentiments are echoed by Hanifa, a 42-year-old black woman, who has been coming to the Conversation Club for two years. “ Loneliness is the worst kind of pain, “ she says .” Our status means that we are invisible, we are poor in spirit and poor financially, it creates a barrier’’, she adds.

“ I am lonely too”, chimes Victor, a 66-year-old Volunteer at the Club. “I was married once in Sri Lanka, fled the war and came here four years ago. But even after settling down, it still very difficult to interact with the locals’’. Victor lingers for a while observing the various activities in the room. He sighs and walks away towards the kitchen, he is on kitchen duty today.

PovertyTruthInitiatives like the Conversation Club and the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission (LPTC) project which was launched in 2015 are examples of organisations that aim to tackle chronic loneliness.  LPTC aims to tackle the dehumanising effects of Poverty, which creates Isolation. Their humanifesto identifies isolation as one of the contributing factors to poverty in Leeds, and that Rehumanising Leeds includes reaching out to people who might be feeling isolated and alone. The link between Isolation and mental health problems has been established and a wealth of research indicates that relationships are good for everyone. Scientists have established that we are inherently social animals and that humans have an innate need for social connections.

In recent years though, counter to known studies, solitude has been seen to beneficial moreover even needed. A recent study has shown that spiritual communities that practice meditation offer a unique perspective to solitude and state that it is necessary for creativity. Psychiatrist Anthony Storr has argued in favour of an introverted approach to life and states that most profound human experiences have little to do with a relationship with others. “Solitude is linked with self-discovery and self-realisation”, he adds. These findings are supported by an American Author Anneli Rufus who values solitudes. “Loners are a breed apart, and are resourceful with inner discipline and a knack for visions “, she writes.

Others argue that Isolation is symptomatic of the 21st-century living and cannot be avoided. More people live alone, have fewer children and the ageing population is growing. Communities are more fluid and open, not rooted to localities. “The changes that have taken place in the UK in the last 30 years show that the sense of community has weakened in almost every area”, says a survey that was done in 2008  by the University of Sheffield. The closure of focal point services that used to bridge different generations such as the post -offices, and working men’s club have had an impact on local communities. “The ‘cult of busyness’ that has become a modern badge of honour and there is a lot of pressure to be productive at work neglecting relationships’’, writes Harvard professors of psychiatry Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz.

As a nation, we are hooked on the internet. According to the Office of National Statistics(ONS), there has been 150% rise of teleworkers between 1997 and 2005. On a social level, people now spend more time on social networking sites than investing in real-life social encounters. “This has undermined social skills and the ability to read body language”, argues psychologist Dr Aric Sigman. Still, there remains a  divided view that the internet has helped reduced social isolation. Examples are when virtual relationships evolve into real -life relationships. Parenting and dating websites have enabled people to meet face to face because of the contacts that have been made online.

The drive to prevent loneliness and to stop it from being chronic is key to successful communities. These initiatives are vital for the overall well-being of not just this marginalised group, but for our society as a whole.

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