A report launched in December 2020 highlighted the impact of loneliness across Northern Ireland communities and Coleraine councillor William McCandless believes it is important to highlight the complex effects it can have on everyday life and the need for more investment in the health service to make the connection between physical and mental health.
Describing loneliness as “another ticking time bomb”, the councillor says it “needs to be recognised and treated as the massive public health concern it is”.
The report, the first study on loneliness to focus solely on Northern Ireland, showed that one in three people are ‘more often lonely’ and that chronic loneliness affects one in 20 people in Northern Ireland.
71 per cent of people are worried about someone they know being lonely during the winter months because of the Covid 19 restrictions and 88 per cent of people said loneliness has become a bigger problem since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The report highlighted that loneliness has a real cost and affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds. It can begin in childhood and lead to chronic loneliness lasting into adulthood.
Overall, one in five people in Northern Ireland report feeling lonely always or often, which represents nearly 380,000 local people.
The report highlights that being chronically – or always – lonely is dangerous for your health and wellbeing, putting you at higher risk of heart disease, dementia and mental ill-health.
For children, loneliness can lead to or exacerbate mental ill health, affect their development, education and long term life outcomes.
Explaining why he has a particular interest in this issue, Councillor McCandless explained: “To be honest I have been interested in the effects of loneliness over the past few years due to the condition of a close family member.
“Loneliness impacts seriously on an individual’s physical and mental health and well-being. Associated health risks with loneliness are alcoholism and drug use, altered brain function, poor decision making, progression of Alzheimers, decrease in memory and learning, ASB, cardiovascular disease and cause of stroke, depression and suicide, increased stress levels.”
The councillor continued: “Working with a few local organisations over the past few years, I have been able to appreciate and get a better understanding of how feelings of loneliness have been heightened and exacerbated in the past 18 months due to Coronavirus.
“We will all feel lonely from time to time. Feelings of loneliness are personal and everyone’s experience can be different. Loneliness is not always the same as being alone. Feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked.
“The cause and effect of loneliness is extremely complex and one shoe size won’t fit all in tackling it and due to the variety of contributory factors leading to loneliness, a multi-faceted approach is required.
“For many, feeling lonely is being overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of separation at a deep and personal level. This can be manifested by feeling totally miserable, vacuous and painfully hollow.
“In 2018 The Independent reported that ‘Loneliness is on it’s way to becoming Britain’s most lethal condition’. It is estimated that 2.4m adult British residents, of all ages, suffer from chronic loneliness. In the USA it is estimated that this figure can be as high as one in 4.
“Social isolation is not natural for our human nature. There used to be so many local services such as the corner shop, the post office, the darts/dominoes at the local pub. Visiting these gave a reason to shower and shave, dress and generally make an effort. Sadly many local services have disappeared.
“Technology such as the internet certainly does make it easier to become more connected but this same technology will eventually lead to causing more loneliness.
“Because the need for social connection is so strong in humans it can drive isolated people to form para social relationships with television characters or their pets. A survey by AGE UK confirmed that 50 per cent of the over 65 age bracket consider television as their main form of company.
“Contributory factors to loneliness such as bereavement, ill health, and poverty can lead to isolation, next there can be a downward spiral of self-neglect and not participating in or having fewer opportunities to make new connections or friendships.
“Being connected with others is necessary to our survival, we need that vital social contact. An old African proverb says ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far – go together’. However, you can have many connections with others and still be lonely. It is the quality of the connections which matter.”
It has been reported that loneliness has also been found to result in greater use of health and social care services, and research recently commissioned by the U.K. Government calculates that the overall monetary impact of severe loneliness is at least £9,530 per person per year.
Councillor McCandless believes a health care service that is ‘preventive rather than reactive’ is required.
“I feel we need more investment in our health service making the connection between physical and mental health”, he said.
“What has been lost along the way in our self-centred 21st century where we cannot detect loneliness which has a cluster of emotions – anger, sadness, grief, fear. How do we work through this to provide physical, mental, emotional, and for some, spiritual connection?
Offering some words of advice to those who are struggling, the Independent councillor added: “Remember, you are NOT alone, if you are suffering from loneliness you just need some help to connect with your community.
“Have you considered contacting an old friend you lost touch with, reconnecting with a family member, maybe a cousin, you lost touch with. You could speak to a health professional, counsellor or speak to a volunteer at the Samaritans by calling 116 123.
“You may wish to join an online group and then progress to meeting up socially. Volunteering with a charity organisation is a fantastic way to use your life skills, learn something new, meet people and make a difference to your community.
“Exercise, spend time outdoors and maybe join a walking group. Look after your health, eat well and sleep well – get into a regular pattern of sleep.
“Finally please ask for help and be prepared to accept it.”