Talking seriously about loneliness

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Loneliness kills people and communities. Helplines have a critical strategic role to play.

People who are lonely can die younger. An international study looked at more than 44,000 people with heart disease in a range of countries. It found that people with heart disease who live alone tend to die sooner than those sharing their home with others. Over the four years the study lasted, 7.7 per cent of participants younger than 65 who lived on their own died, compared to just 5.7 per cent of those who didn't live alone.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has produced some fascinating work on loneliness which identifies loneliness as being distinct from social isolation. It defines loneliness as being a mismatch in the relationships that we have, and the relationships we want to have. Loneliness describes the pain of being alone, as the opposite of solitude, where people can take pleasure from having time to one’s self.  Some people seek solitude, but few people actively choose to be lonely.

The work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looked at responses to loneliness on a community level. Through community development work they found that loneliness could be reduced and that tackling it at a neighbourhood level built personal and community confidence which in turn built resilience enabling people to be able to withstand unexpected shocks more effectively.

Helplines tend to work beyond neighbourhood levels. Some helplines offer a national or even international service. Helplines offer non-judgemental support to anyone who needs it, regardless of location. This is important because any member of society can suffer from loneliness. It is well recognised as a risk for older people. In England, 51% of all people over 75 live alone and 5 million older people say the television is their main form of company. But a survey from the Mental Health Foundation found that nearly 60% of those aged between 18 and 34 spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared with 35% of those aged over 55. Helplines can tailor their services to support people from a range of backgrounds, and offer choices in the form of communication, like texting, web chats, email or phone.

Helplines however have an enormous role to play in tackling loneliness. We can all be lonely sometimes. Without the helplines sector many vulnerable people would be even more alone.

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