Loneliness can kill you — but is it government’s job to solve it?

Countries are beginning to treat loneliness as a public health crisis

Last year, an 85-year-old grandfather posted a notice to his local bus shelter in Tianjin, China. “Lonely man in his ‘80s,” it read. “I won’t go to a nursing home. My hope is that a kind-hearted person or family will adopt me.”

The note became symbolic of a brewing demographic crisis. The country’s now-scrapped “one-child policy” has created a generation of isolated over-60s. Loneliness among these seniors has become so prevalent that in 2013, government passed a law mandating that children must visit their ageing parents.

Loneliness doesn’t only affect the elderly — it’s reached epidemic proportions across age groups. In the US, one in every five people is lonely; in the UK, it’s one in every four. These numbers are set to rise with the growth of social media, workplace automation and more people living alone. And social isolation can kill: feeling lonely could increase your chances of dying by 50%, making it as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

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The question is: does government have the right to wade into the personal lives of citizens, or does it overstep boundaries to tell people how to foster meaningful relationships?

The hands-on approach

Denmark’s citizens are the third-happiest in the world, according to this year’s World Happiness Report. Yet the number of Danes who report feeling lonely in national surveys has more than trebled in the past five years: from 100,000 in 2013 to 350,000 in 2017.

Now, more and more of the country’s regional governments take the view that they can and should step in to fix the problem directly.

Folkebevægelsen mod Ensomhed, which loosely translates to the “National Movement Against Loneliness”, is an organisation that organises communal meals to help Danes nurture social connections. Founded in 2016, it is now made up of 70 municipalities, organisations, schools and businesses that organise communal meals to help Danes nurture social connections.

Aarhus, Denmark’s second-biggest city, is a member. But its government also makes use of an even more hands-on approach to tackle loneliness.

“Admitting that you’re lonely, in a way, means you’re not successful; that you don’t have any friends”

On the government-run GENLYD platform, residents can arrange to take part in their hobbies — from fishing to football — with strangers. Community organisations, foundations and clubs use the platform to organise activities.

The city also works with pharmacists, therapists and even hairdressers to identify people who are feeling lonely. If ­these contacts sense that a client needs help, they ask that person if they would like to be contacted by the municipality. If they agree, their name and phone number are passed on to the people behind GENLYD, who get in contact within a few days.

The key is making residents feel comfortable by not forcing them to admit they are lonely, said Mia Saskia Olsen, program leader at GENLYD. “Danes can be better at watching from a distance, hoping someone else will do something about it,” she said. “But we’ve had a very good response: lots of people are surprised, in a good way, that the municipality is interested in this side of their lives.”

Andreas Eliasen, analysis and development consultant at the Municipality of Køge said that, left to their own devices, many Danes simply wouldn’t tell others they were feeling lonely. “It’s taboo to talk about because we have a strong culture of being good neighbours and being kind to each other,” he said.  “Admitting that you’re lonely, in a way, means you’re not successful; that you don’t have any friends or relatives.”

Many efforts to curb loneliness focus on the elderly, but Aarhus’ efforts are also concentrated on young people. “Sometimes it takes a detective hunt to find out if someone is lonely, but we need to acknowledge that this can happen to anyone,” said Olesen.

Still, with few governments addressing the problem head-on, there is scant evidence on which programs and policies work to combat loneliness. “We don’t know enough about it to know what to do about it,” admitted Eliasen.

Is it up to government?

In the UK, central government is stepping up to fix the problem, but it’s still exploring what that response should involve.

In January, the country appointed the world’s first minister for loneliness, the Conservative lawmaker Tracey Crouch. She will work with business and charities to boost awareness of the issue and create a government strategy to fight it.

“The fact that Theresa May appointed Crouch received a lot of attention globally — it should be proud it’s leading the way, in some respects,” said Sam Dick, director of policy and campaigns at the Campaign to End Loneliness, a campaigning and lobbying organisation.

However, Dick said, the UK government still has a way to go. In his view, government should work on establishing resources and funding, building evidence about what works to combat the problem and pushing policy through accordingly. For example, the campaign has worked with government to research how the availability of public transport affects loneliness.

“I don’t think government should be telling people to make friends and meaningful connections”

What government shouldn’t bother with, Dick said, is public campaigning. “A big barrier to any public engagement campaign is people trusting the messenger, and feeling that they know what they’re talking about. I don’t think government should be telling people to make friends and meaningful connections,” said Dick.

Foundations, community organisations and individuals should take the lead on talking to citizens about the importance of human connection, he said.

“One of the biggest issues we face is that people find it difficult to admit to themselves that they are lonely. If people experience loneliness, they lose skills and their ability to make social connections,” said Dick. “Government should focus on what government can do best — that’s leadership.”

Some governments, like those in Aarhus and Køge, are dealing with the loneliness problem at a hyper-local level: interacting directly with citizens to impress on them the importance of social interaction.

While the UK’s minister for loneliness has yet to publish her strategy for curbing loneliness, the country has latched onto a key trend for fighting social problems: public-private partnerships. Policy change is important, but it’s also a short-term goal. Getting people to look at social interactions as an integral part of individual well-being — like eating enough fruit and vegetables, or sleeping eight hours a day — will require collaboration from all sectors. —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Deva Darshan)

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