Welcoming the new Minister for Loneliness

22 Jan 2018 |Written by Charlotte Murray

I was pleased this week to see the news that Tracey Crouch has been appointed the new Minister for Loneliness in Theresa May's government. It's great to see that an issue that is so pervasive will now be tackled with a co-ordinated, cross-government approach.

As the Jo Cox Commission for Loneliness recently highlighted, nine million adults are often or always lonely. Loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For many, life events can create a rapid spiral from being well-connected and happy to feeling lonely or isolated, impacting negatively on relationships, work, health and other life outcomes.

In our work, supporting people who are digitally and socially excluded, loneliness is something that we - and particularly the local community organisations in the Online Centres Network - see all the time. It is faced by women who don't speak English, and so are cut off from local support systems, and often from the services they so desperately need. It's faced by older people, those who have lost partners or family members, those who are struggling to get out of the house due to health or other reasons. People living with unemployment, poverty, and homelessness also regularly experience loneliness, as this article shows.

Digital is often painted as being part of the reason for the loneliness epidemic - something highlighted recently by Jo Cox's sister, Kim Leadbetter. And there's no denying that it can stop people from talking to each other, from striking up conversation as they once would. But for those who have the skills and confidence they need to use digital technology, it can also be a powerful way to overcome loneliness - helping you to connect with family wherever they are in the world, or to find a virtual community of interest if you're not able to find one locally.

We also see again and again that by engaging with digital through local support - often through one of our Online Centres - people can begin to connect to their communities again, and to overcome loneliness. Online Centres, and community organisation all over the country, are combating loneliness in a simple way - by connecting people. By providing a safe place, an open door, and often a cup of tea and a biscuit.

You can see this in many of the stories of learners who have been supported through loneliness, and are now on the other side. People like Nageswary, originally from Sri Lanka, who struggled with her English skills after her husband died. Or Ravi, who found himself homeless after a change in his family situation.

The way centres support their communities is different everywhere - there is no one-size-fits-all solution. After that open door, and the cup of tea, learners receive the support they need to overcome the issues they're facing. Centres often help people to integrate and progress (to things like volunteering, employment and qualifications) and all of this takes time. And most importantly, centres provide safety net that catches people when they need it, stopping people falling further into despair, loneliness and isolation.

This is one of the things I love hearing about when I visit centres. The pride of people who have made connections through the centre with other learners, volunteers and staff. The sense of belonging to a community again. People like Doreen and Stella, two previously lonely older women - now close friends - who met at an Online Centre and have used digital technology to open up a new world of friendship and hobbies.

So I welcome this new role, and I look forward to seeing how the Minister and her team begin to tackle the issue. I'm sure they will recognise the huge role that both community based support and digital can play, in connecting people, and helping them to overcome the complex issues they might face. I'm sure the whole of the Online Centres Network will have a huge role to play - and we look forward to working together to help find the solutions.