Bringing People Together: How Community Action Can Tackle Loneliness And Social Isolation

Humans are social creatures, but sometimes we welcome solitude. Being alone can be a chance to reflect and recharge, to get away from the many demands on our energy and attention. Yet most people will also feel lonely at some times in their lives. This sense of missing human contact doesn’t necessarily come from being alone. It’s possible to feel isolated in a crowd, and to enjoy time to yourself.

Loneliness is normal, and even healthy. It can be a prompt for action, a reminder to re-engage with other people and create or reaffirm connections. Where it can become a problem is if people become isolated through circumstances beyond their control, if it becomes entrenched, or persists over time. Long-term loneliness can affect the way people view themselves and their place in the world. Lonely people may shut off from others, take less care of themselves or change their eating and sleeping patterns. All this can affect their health, wellbeing, ability to connect with others, and self-worth.  At the same time people may find it difficult to identify loneliness as a source of strain, or fear that their distress won’t be taken seriously. Others may feel like their problems aren’t real enough to ask for help.

What do we mean by loneliness and social isolation? Academic literature makes a clear distinction between social isolation and loneliness. Isolation is usually defined as an objective quality. It refers to the quantity of social relationships that a person has at individual, group, community and society level. These are factors that can usually be measured. Loneliness is more subjective, because it describes a feeling – a sense of the lack or loss of connections, of missing meaningful contact.

It can affect everyone – Despite reluctance to admit to it, loneliness is very common. It is likely that everyone will experience it at some point, perhaps at many stages in their lives. In policy terms, there has been a focus on isolation and loneliness among older people – perhaps because they may have practical, visible reasons for loss of connection, such as the death of a partner. But the experience can affect people of any age. Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.

Factors associated with loneliness – Rather than having a simple, identifiable source, loneliness is a complex condition that is multi-layered and can be self-perpetuating. It may be difficult to separate cause from effect or to isolate objective triggers or risk factors. Contributing factors can be both personal and societal.

Preventing social isolation and loneliness – what works? There’s no prescription or formula for tackling loneliness effectively, but prevention is at the heart of our funding. We enable this by funding activities that build thriving, inclusive communities for all, while recognising the need for support for those who are isolated and facing problems now.

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