It’s Lonelier Away from the Top

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 30, 2018

It was fascinating to read recently that Britain has decided to create a Minister for Loneliness to address what Britons have identified as a growing social and health problem.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Prime Minister Theresa May said. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by caretakers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”


Perhaps I’ve become inured in a year of the Trump presidency that hammers away daily at government services for the aid of actual people. If it doesn’t help business, it isn’t good, is the message. So, programs for food stamps, health insurance, aid to the most vulnerable are all on the chopping block, while tax cuts favor the wealthy and corporations. Few would argue that the Trump mission is to make our daily lives better as individuals through federal services.

At tonight’s State of the Union address, the president will lavish praise — and budget — on the military, the protection of the border, including a wall, on a host of socially conservative issues. But paying for all that, by omission, are everything about consumer protection, the arts and social services, including Medicare and Medicaid.

Indeed, I find it impossible to consider Trump issuing an executive order to help solve loneliness as a social issue. He can’t even do it for opioids, a pandemic.

Interesting, as Prime Minister, May has not particularly been seen as focused on improving the domestic tranquility. But she has been persuaded that loneliness, depression, even suicide actually reflects a serious health risk for the nation, and that it is an issue for the government to embrace.

May said she was following the concerns of Labor Party MP Jo Cox, who was creating a Commission on Loneliness until she was murdered in 2016. The commission mission was to accelerate public awareness of loneliness, to do something about it along with employers and communities.

A 2017 report by the commission said nine million Britons often or always feel lonely. Mark Robinson, the chief officer of Age UK, Britain’s largest charity working with older people, told reporters that the problem can kill people. “It’s proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, but it can be overcome and needn’t be a factor in older people’s lives,” he said.

The new minister will be Tracey Crouch, who has been the under-secretary for sport and civil society in the culture ministry. She will lead a government-wide group to establish policy that builds on the Cox commission work. At the same time, the Office for National Statistics will establish a method of measuring loneliness, and set up a fund to help the government and charities to develop strategies.

Cox was shot dead by a right-wing extremist had setup a cross-party commission that aimed to start a national conversation and establish the scale and impact of loneliness in Britain. Lawmakers Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy, leaders of the commission, said the move was welcome, adding “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.” They said the lonely include new parents, children, disabled people, refugees and older people.

They cited government research has found that about 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.

Clearly this is an issue that is not limited to Britain, and undoubtedly is exacerbated by other issues of poverty or “not fitting into society.” Some researchers trying to count reports of loneliness have estimated that upwards of 12% to 20% of the population has reported loneliness as a problem at one time or another. It has been estimated that approximately 60 million people in the United States, or 20% of the total population, feel lonely.

Psychology magazines identify loneliness as a state of mind that causes people to feel empty, alone and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind can make it more difficult to form connections with other people. Loneliness, then is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, if you feel alone and isolated.

As such it is difficult to measure, but is widely seen as connected to both physical and mental health of an individual. Curiously, some experts see social media as worsening such feelings rather than helping to connect the lonely with others.

There seems a clear distinction between feeling lonely and being socially isolated. We all crave time alone; the feeling that we are lonely even in a crowd is something different. Generally, what makes a person lonely is the fact that they need more social interaction or a certain type of social interaction that is not currently available.

Researchers writing in the journal, Heart, for example, have described data from 23 studies as supporting the idea that social isolation or feelings of loneliness are tied to increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Studies that included data from 181,006 men and women 18 and older, finding that loneliness and isolation increased risks by 29% and stroke by 32% among both men and women of different ages.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer