Lonely In London: Ills of loneliness are now growing like an epidemic

Doctors try to connect the cures for social isolation

Friday, 5th August — By Tom Foot

5 Pancras Square Image 2021-02-24 at 14.37.51 (4)

Camden Council’s 5PS offices

SOCIAL isolation and loneliness are estimated to have the same “health-harming effect” as obesity and physical inactivity with the problem set to reach epidemic levels by 2030.

That’s according to Camden Council, which is currently mapping out how it intends to “reduce social isolation and improve community connectedness” in a borough where 18 per cent of the population live alone.

Council figures show Camden has the fourth highest share of single-person households in the country and 70 per cent of adults are single, separated or divorced.

Health problems for those feeling lonely include higher rate of smoking, poor sleep, disease and stroke with greater danger of self harm, according to a health report discussed by councillors last month.

The research strikes a distinction between social isolation and “the unpleasant subjective feeling” of loneliness when a person does not have the level of quality friendships they would desire. It is possible for a person to be socially isolated but not lonely, and vice versa.

Sue Vincent and Rebecca Filer

Jess McGregor, Camden’s director of adult social care, said: “We are emphasising that it’s loneliness rather than social isolation that causes health harm. But there is a connection between the two.”

When the report was discussed by a cross-party scrutiny committee, Councillor Rebecca Filer told the meeting: “Social isolation and loneliness is often thought of in terms of older people, not young people who may be harder to reach.

“There is a lot of stigma in terms of people recognising social isolation is leading to loneliness, and health impacts. They are not going to a library. Not going to a service provider. How would you envisage reaching them?”

She added: “There is an increase in social isolation in young men particularly, and this steps into misogyny and ‘incel’ culture. There are very dangerous effects of young people being isolated. Through online engagement, people can become radicalised. It’s a difficult issue for us to include in this work but I wanted to raise it.”

Kirsten Watters, director of public health, responded: “Loneliness is a self perceived quality of the kind of relationships you want. The solutions may be different for different people.

“Young people are more likely to be lonely but more likely to be socially connected. They have networks of people, but can feel lonely anyway. The problems are linked to poor mental health and resilience.”

She added: “Social connectedness can be both a positive but also a risk factor. We need to ask more young adults about that.”

The councillors on the health and well being committee said they were focused on policy interventions that would increase confidence to go out and speak to people. The idea is to nurture strong communities with more food networks and coffee mornings.

Cllr Sue Vincent said that some of the statistics in the report were “shocking” and questioned whether GPs had the capacity for social prescribing (see below).

Doctors try to connect the cures for social isolation

EVER wondered how to get involved in community walks, gardening or simply meet like-minded people who share your interests?, writes Tom Foot.

GPs are now providing this sort of help to patients as part of a new “personalised care” scheme. Patients can be referred to a “social prescribing link” worker who will assess their needs.

Real life examples of how residents in Camden who have already been helped in this way include a 69-year-old man who was recently confined to a wheelchair and broken up with long-term partner.

A link worker found out about his interest in sport and he is now training with a disability sports coach.

A 90-year-old man came to the service saying he no longer saw meaning in life after the death of his wife.

The link worker found he was interested in archaeology, culture and gardening and so helped him organise to attend events at Dragon Hall, Covent Garden, with North London Cares, and also the Calthorpe Community Garden where he now volunteers.

In another case, a 57 year-old woman who had become socially isolated and lonely after becoming housebound and was helped to join a reading scheme and advice about attending community walks.

The service is not just for older people.

During the pandemic, being a student emerged as one of the main predictor of loneliness with young people aged 16-24 found to be four times more likely to report “lockdown loneliness” relative to people aged over 65.

The social prescribing scheme was launched earlier this year by the North Central London Clinical Commissioning Groups.

Dr Rebecca Hammett-Burke – a GP covering north London – said: “The pandemic really highlighted to us how reliant we are on our families, friends and communities for both our physical and mental health. The lockdown limited our access to these relationships and as a result we suffered.”

She added: “It further illustrated that a person’s wellbeing is influenced by factors far beyond their physical health. Personalised care hopes to join up and recognise all the care that is offered in our communities.”

Link officer Luana Baptista, who said: “It is difficult to reach out for help, as many people don’t know where to start.”
More ideas can be found in our Lonely In London special features beginning on page 11.

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