Recently I was delighted to give the opening address at the Scottish Government’s stakeholder event on developing a National Strategy to Tackle Social Isolation and Loneliness. Here’s a summary of what I said – and if you’re interested in reading my presentation in full and seeing the Scottish Government’s summary of all the presentations made that day, just scroll to the end of my blog.
A health inequalities issue
VHS’s interest in social isolation and loneliness started through our work around health inequalities. In 2014 we ran a programme of events called Unequal Lives Unjust Deaths, that took a life course approach to understanding health inequalities. The programme ended with an event on older people and you could say that loneliness took centre stage, with nearly all of the contributions homing in on loneliness as both a symptom of and a compounding factor in health inequalities.
This programme led us to establish Living in the Gap – our national research study which produced an evidence base about the voluntary sector’s involvement in addressing health inequalities. This was a study involving over 160 organisations involved with children, young people and families, community food, financial inclusion, fuel poverty, older people, long term conditions and community development. We didn’t set out to ask these organisations about social isolation or loneliness, but an astonishing 91% of survey respondents volunteered the view that they were defining factors in health inequalities, both as cause and effect, and as a cost to both the individual and society.
A public health issue
I don’t think we realized it at the time, but Living in the Gap set out a public health case for tackling loneliness. Our ongoing work to promote the voluntary sector’s approach to health inequalities has helped to broaden the debate and understanding that chronic loneliness is not exclusive to older age – it goes across the life stages.
There is no X ray for social isolation or blood test for loneliness and it is absolutely not a medical issue – we need to avoid medicalizing loneliness as an ailment to be fixed. But chronic loneliness does have a real impact on physical and mental health, it affects people differently at different life stages, and we are delighted that Directors of Public Health are beginning to pay attention to this.
Last November our national conference focused on loneliness and health and Dr Andrew Fraser, Director of Public Health Science at NHS Health Scotland and Chair of the Directors of Public Health concluded the day by saying ‘the collective wisdom in this room could write the national strategy for the SG’. This was a most welcome acknowledgement of the voluntary sector’s experience and expertise in addressing loneliness and timely given the planned creation of a new national public health body. The Scottish Public Health Network now plans to do some work on loneliness and we are working with them to encourage a collaborative, cross-sectoral approach.
A national strategy
Volunteering is a crucial element in any discussion about a strategy to address loneliness, as it is such a powerful tool in creating and sustaining reciprocal relationships. Food focused work is another mechanism for bringing people together and nurturing more socially active and inclusive communities. The National Strategy needs to take up a joined up approach across policy areas – there are gains to be made across a range of National Outcomes if unwanted loneliness can be addressed in a concerted manner.
Earlier this year VHS collaborated with Befriending Networks, British Red Cross, and Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland to come up with five key ideas that we thought the Strategy should consider:
- How can we better ensure consistent and sustained measurement of loneliness and social isolation as the evidence base is under-developed and inconsistent.
- How could we assess and audit policies and plans for their impact on loneliness, across all policy areas including health and social care, equalities, education, planning, justice, community safety, housing and transport. Poor public and community transport in rural areas has emerged as a significant barrier to social connectedness, particularly for younger and older people.
- How can we better promote and support volunteering as a means to prevent and mitigate loneliness.
- How can we encourage local partnerships, including health and social care partnerships, to address loneliness as part of their strategic and locality planning and delivery, because this will contribute to National Outcomes.
- How can we harness digital technology in relation to loneliness? Digital has the capacity to be both a tool for prevention and mitigation but may also exacerbate loneliness
If the National Strategy could be framed in terms of prevention and equalities, if it could focus on enabling and building kinder communities and delivering more compassionate public services, if it could find a new language to overcome the current stigma surrounding loneliness – all of that would resonate strongly with what the voluntary sector thinks needs to happen.
Read my presentation in full: Kinder More Social Communities April 2017
Read the Scottish Government’s summary of the national stakeholder event held on 19th April 2017:
Other VHS resources on loneliness and health:
Claire Stevens is Chief Officer at VHS.