Sian Lockwood: Fix loneliness—appoint a minister

It is a terrible indictment of our society that so many people of all ages live lonely and isolated lives

We have known for years about the devastating impact of loneliness and isolation on people’s physical and mental health. There has been much agonised debate about the best ways to tackle loneliness, and many national and local initiatives have looked at this—including the much publicised Campaign to End Loneliness. The recent contribution to the debate by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has been welcome, as their report recognises the complexity of the challenge and includes a number of considered and helpful recommendations for action. The UK prime minister’s appointment of a minister for loneliness is part of a wider response to the Jo Cox report and a statement about the importance of the issue to the government.

However, the appointment of a minister for loneliness carries some dangers. It implies that the responsibility for tackling loneliness lies with the government, that “the problem” can be fixed for people by professionals, and that the rest of us have no part to play in helping people. It is a terrible indictment of our society that so many people of all ages live lonely and isolated lives. The responsibility for helping people break out from their own isolation and loneliness lies with us all. Although that message is beginning to trickle through, it is confused by big, headline grabbing “we’ll fix it” statements—however well intentioned they may be.

My organisation Community Catalysts works across the UK through local partners to help people use their talents to support other people in their community. In our experience everyone has strengths and gifts that they can use to make a contribution, which other people will genuinely value. We see that having an opportunity to use their interests, knowledge, experience, and talent for others gives people a sense of purpose and has the potential to build real mutually valued friendships.

“We’ll fix it for you” approaches, however benignly intended, disempower people. Interventions with this top-down mindset tend to have limited long term impact, unless real friendships blossom. In our experience, focusing on people’s strengths and interests and helping them find ways to use them to make a contribution can lead to transformational long term change.

The appointment of a minister for loneliness is, of course, a welcome statement of the importance the government places on tackling the problem of loneliness. The government will need to work hard though to ensure that the appointment does not give a false message that loneliness is someone else’s problem and can be fixed by professionals. It will only have an impact if people living lonely and isolated lives are seen as people with strengths and gifts, who can co-create their own solutions, and make contributions for other people.

Sian Lockwood is CEO of Community Catalysts.

Competing interests: None declared.