Loneliness. People are not the problem, they are the solution!

02 Oct 2018 |Written by Roz Davies

The scale of loneliness is huge. In the UK alone there are 9 million people who are lonely and socially isolated. Much work has been undertaken to understand and end loneliness by the likes of the Campaign to End Loneliness, the Jo Cox Foundation and the British Red Cross. We also have a Loneliness Minister and an imminent cross government national Strategy.

In this context there are some interesting findings emerging from Radio 4's newly published 'Anatomy of Loneliness' survey. Some of the ones that really stood out to me include:

  • the percentage of younger people (40%) who feel more lonely was higher than older people (27%),
  • we are just as likely to be lonely in the summer as in the winter,
  • people who are discriminated against (socially excluded) are more lonely,
  • people are ashamed of being lonely.

However, the finding that struck me the most was how people who have experienced loneliness have more empathy towards others. This is a big hint to at least part of the solution.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy underpins peer support.

Time and again I have observed and felt the positive power of 'peer support', some people are able to easily offer and access peer support across their existing social networks when they are in need, but this is not the case for everyone. There may be many barriers for people who are more socially and digitally excluded including lack of confidence, skills and connections.

The Online Centres Network has many examples of peer support, enabled by a blended approach of hyperlocal community activities powered by digital including:

  • Sheffield Flourish, who are involved in Reboot UK. Sheffield Flourish have a digital wellbeing platform where people who have experienced mental health conditions are generously and bravely prepared to share their stories of recovery, in order to help others.
  • Zest for Work's English My Way classes - captured in this classroom study - highlights how over the course, women from different cultures began to find friendship and support amongst their classmates.
  • At Manchester CAB's Women Making History #VoiceBoxCafes project, young women have set up a #PeriodPoverty campaign for girls living in poverty in their local schools.

Most of our digitally enabled programmes are having an impact on loneliness and social isolation even when it is not the primary intended outcome. Our learner progression survey shows that 61% of learners are less lonely and 76% feel more connected following involvement in our Future Digital Inclusion programme, while 67% of our English My Way learners improved their confidence to use their English with neighbours and acquaintances and 52% of NHS Widening Digital Participation phase one programme learners felt less lonely or isolated.

Our own experience is backed up by wider evidence from the National Voices/NESTA 'Realising the Value Report which highlights how peer support can help people feel less isolated and alone.

Our model of hyperlocal community support blended with digital can help to unleash the power and potential of people with empathy to support each other and make a big positive impact on loneliness across the world!

People are part of the solution, not the problem.