Loneliness is a normal human emotion, and all of us feel it from time to time. But for some people loneliness is something they experience all the time, and this has a proven negative impact on their physical and mental health and wellbeing. Changes to society in recent generations mean that we are now more likely to be isolated from a strong network of support – be it family or friends – which gives us the all-important “social capital” we need as human beings.
The scale and impact of loneliness in modern Scotland makes it a public health issue, like smoking, obesity and drinking. The statistics are stark – on average, 10 per cent of the population aged over 65 are chronically lonely, a recent US study found that being lonely can increase the risk of death by 10 per cent, and loneliness increases the risk of heart disease. It is estimated to be as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness can often be a hidden issue, and there is a huge gap in the public services provided for people which can help address loneliness and isolation. Third sector organisations like Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, therefore, have a vital part to play, because we are already working closely with many of the people most at risk.
But the reality is, it takes the whole of society to tackle this public health issue. It is positive that the Scottish Government has announced it will develop a national strategy for tackling loneliness, and we hope there will be future opportunities to input into the development of that strategy. If it is going to make a real difference it will need to identify practical steps that can and will be taken by every sector in society, from central and local government down to communities and individuals. Inevitably, it will need to be underpinned by resources which can ensure that the participatory action which is needed will take place at a local level.
Many people are familiar with the benefits befriending programmes can bring. Each year organisations across Scotland highlight Befriending Week, which in 2016 is November 1-7. Befriending Week aims to raise the profile of the issue of loneliness and demonstrate the amazing impact those who befriend have on the lives of others. It also gives Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland the opportunity to thank our volunteers for the massive impact their time makes to beating loneliness in the local area.
Befriending often provides people with a new direction in life, by opening up a range of activities and leading to increased self-esteem and self-confidence, which all help to beat loneliness. Many charities like us are members of Befriending Network UK, which supports organisations in how they reduce isolation and loneliness. Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s specific befriending programmes support people living with chronic long-term conditions such as heart failure that can limit their opportunities to do the simple things we take for granted. Volunteer befrienders are recruited, trained and carefully matched with people who need someone to talk to, go shopping with, or perhaps just share a cup of tea.
Often a befriender is the only person that some people will see in a week. To help overcome the geographical challenges of more rural or remote parts of Scotland we are also piloting telephone befriending.
Like many charities, the impact we have on loneliness extends beyond tailored befriending schemes to the full range of support services we provide, and our many opportunities for volunteering and participation. Our Stroke Support Groups, for example, help people living with communication difficulties after stroke, and they are hugely important in preventing isolation, and in building the confidence which people need if they are to participate in society. We have some 1,500 volunteers who work across our support services, fundraising and retail, and in recognition of the huge investment we put into supporting them we recently received our fourth Investors in Volunteers accreditation.
Thankfully, the issue of loneliness as a societal issue is increasing in profile, and in addition to the Scottish Government’s announced national strategy, loneliness is a core focus for the third sector and beyond. In September a National Summit on Loneliness in Scotland was held in Edinburgh, sponsored by the Scottish Government and Befriending Networks. In November, Voluntary Health Scotland’s annual conference will focus on tackling the issue. It is positive that organisations, experts and policy makers are coming together to ensure Scotland wakes up to its hidden public health issue and tackles this complex challenge together.
Paul Okroj is Head of Volunteering at Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, and Chair of Befriending Networks in Scotland.