Loneliness can be a lifetime condition
Campaigns around loneliness and social isolation have traditionally focused on older people.
As we live longer, staying at home into old age, this is perhaps to be expected. Households consisting of only one person are now the most common type in Scotland, and most of those are older people.
But as yesterday’s Holyrood event on loneliness and social isolation heard, the issue impacts on all parts of society.
In the words of the late MP Jo Cox, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.
Chris O’Hanlon, the Scottish Government’s policy officer on the subject, said he recognised there was “no ‘typical’ profile of a lonely or isolated person, this can affect anyone at any age or stage of life”.
This was highlighted by two women who attended the event.
Both Vicky and Agnes are in their 60s but told the event that their feelings of isolation began earlier in life.
Vicky told how she had lost both parents as a child and the relationship with her brother broke down.
“After my mum died I had nowhere to live because my brother and I argued a lot,” she said.
“I felt lost. I ended up staying with a girl I knew only for a while, and I’ve never seen my brother since that day. I had a few pals, and we went out from time to time, but we all went our separate ways.”
In recent years her three children leaving home had led to the feelings of isolation resurfacing, she said.
“I see them at Christmas time for a few hours, but at New Year I just went to my bed.”
Agnes said one of her children being murdered had had an impact on the family.
“Once my kids got older my husband became a control freak,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to go out. I lost all my friends. Even though I’ve got four kids and 12 grandkids, it’s still lonely because they’ve got their own lives to lead.”
Both women have built new social networks through social enterprise the Weekday Wow Factor, which runs a disco in Glasgow on a Monday morning for those experiencing chronic loneliness.
For children who have difficulties with learning, whether that be through disability or a disorder, loneliness can begin at school.
Christine Carlin of education charity the Salvesen Mindroom centre said some children can experience loneliness surrounded by their peers. Outbursts caused by Autism or Tourette’s, for example, can alienate children from others who do not understand the condition.
This means some children with additional support needs are not even getting to school at all, she added.
When a fifth of adults in Scotland report having limited social contact with their neighbourhoods, it’s clear that if you become isolated in early life, there are diminishing routes out of it.
Mental Health Foundation research shows face to face social interactions are essential for mental health and resilience, but modern ways of living and working limit those opportunities.
The charity’s policy officer in Scotland Toni Giuliano said: “If you look at the evidence on solitary confinement it shows it is one of the cruellest forms of punishment. Prisoners describe it as torture.”
But in the face of such a cultural challenge, what can the Scottish government, which is consulting on a strategy until April, do?
“Policy has a role to play, both providing strategic oversight as well as encouraging services to work together more closely and innovative ways,” said O’Hanlon.
“We appreciate that services on the ground, grassroots organisations who deal directly with people experiencing social isolations and loneliness are absolutely key to this, but having some kind of performance framework at a national level is really, really important.”
As always, the devil will be in the budgetary detail.