The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a “minister of loneliness” to tackle the social and health issues caused by social isolation.
As Peter Walker at the Guardian reports, Tracey Crouch, who most-recently served as minister for both sport and civil society, will lead a cross-governmental group responsible for creating policies to address the growing problem.
Ceylan Yeginsu at The New York Times reports that the appointment comes after the release of a report on loneliness last year by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, a committee formed in honor of the 41-year-old Labour MP who was murdered by a far-right terrorist during the Brexit referendum in 2016.
According to a press release from the prime minister, appointing a minister for loneliness is the first of several recommendations that she hopes to implement from the report. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” May says. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”
Walker reports of the 66 million people crammed onto an island smaller than the state of Michigan about 9 million people report often or always feeling lonely. One study showed about 200,000 elderly people in the U.K. had not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in over a month.
Melissa Healy at the Los Angeles Times reports that loneliness is not just a mental condition. Extended feelings of loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic inflammation and even dementia. It strikes people regardless of age, gender or situation in life.
“Loneliness can kill. It’s proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Mark Robinson, chief officer of the non-profit Age UK Barnet, says in the release. “But it can be overcome and needn’t be a factor in older people’s lives.”
Healy reports that many non-profits in the U.K. have begun working on loneliness issues in recent years, especially through work connecting lonely seniors with schools and young families. May says that in recent years the U.K. government has engaged loneliness by building neighborhood “pocket parks” to encourage personal engagement, improving mental health support and by supporting volunteer efforts that connect lonely people with the community.
In its report, the Jo Cox Commission also suggests the U.K. develop a nation-wide strategy for combating loneliness, develop a new national indicator to measure progress on loneliness issues, annual reporting on the problem and calls on local mayors, politicians, business leaders and volunteer groups to engage in the issue.
Across the pond, the American Psychological Association writes that up to 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, says in a statement. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
In April of 2017, the Senate Aging Committee held hearings on isolation and loneliness, however a public health measure dealing with loneliness has not been passed by Congress so far.