How does government policy contribute to loneliness? In every way

20th Sep 2013

Barriers to fighting loneliness in the community.

We need to address the epidemic of loneliness in our midst, says Tracey Robbins. Loneliness not only kills people; it kills communities too.

Has our society already died? The challenge for our society is that the policy and strategies put in place by government unwittingly hinder those on the ground trying to bring people, neighbourhoods and communities together.

The findings from our three-year action research programme into loneliness have shown that:

  • There is a contradiction between our ideals and our personal experiences;
  • We should ‘mind the gap’ – the considerable loss of our public services is significant; and
  • Regulation kills kindness and reduces action.

As governments come and go, the focus remains on the urgent not the important, on short-term outputs instead of long-term outcomes. This short-term management of the state has only added to the isolated and solitary state we are in.

We now live in what appears to be a user-unfriendly society, with the stresses and pressures of everyday life taking a real toll on us all. The idea of a big ‘friendly’ society where we all can support one another and be involved in our community is an ideal for which many people have been striving for years, but it is let down by the policy, the economy and the cuts that surround it.

People are penalised for ‘not actively seeking work’. This prevents them from volunteering or joining courses, which not only benefit them and others, but also allow them to keep the contacts and social networks which prevent loneliness. The gap left by our front line services has left local people, professionals and communities bereft. The reduction in our meeting places, including our libraries, post offices and pubs, together with a reduction of youth and community workers and health promotion professionals, has removed the networks that would have supported all of us, especially isolated and lonely people.

As part of the JRF Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness programme, local people trained as community researchers. They researched their neighbourhoods to find out the causes of loneliness in the areas they lived and developed hundreds of ideas to reduce it. They have talked to more than 2000 people in four distinctly different neighbourhoods across two cities, and are now putting into practice some of the preventative ideas to reduce loneliness.

But regulations around insurance, safeguarding and health and safety frustrated other ideas such as a pop-up café for a neighbourhood with no community centre, and reduced it to a coffee morning in a church – although 100 people each week still came. Restoring a village cinema for all ages became a film club mainly attended by adults. Intergenerational drama never happened as youth providers could not work outside their remit. The examples go on and on. Practical simple interventions were seen as too risky, too hard and were therefore diluted or deferred. We know that loneliness is a problem.

We know that neighbourhoods and communities have answers to address it. We now need government to allow these positive solutions to flourish. Otherwise very lonely lives bring huge costs and risks to us all.