Social isolation and loneliness are now recognised as having a major impact on our health and wellbeing. And whilst it has often been talked about as something that affects older people, the fact is that it can affect anyone of us – at any age and at any stage in our life.
It is important to understand what we mean when we talk about social isolation and loneliness.
Social isolation is about the quality and quantity of social relations a person has. Loneliness is a subjective feeling based on a person’s perception of their social connections. Both matter.
I commend the work taken forward by the Equal Opportunities Committee, in the previous Parliament, into Age and Social Isolation – the first of its kind in the UK. And its first recommendation was that the Scottish Government should develop a national strategy to tackle social isolation.
There have been other important developments since then. Before her death, Jo Cox MP established a Commission on Loneliness. She recognised this as an important, human, issue. One that does not discriminate and is everyone’s business. Following her tragic death, her MP colleagues have taken this work forward and last year the Commission published “a call for action” for governments to show national leadership in this area.
Last year I was privileged to meet Brendan Cox to discuss our work and theirs, and I am grateful for the Commission’s support and encouragement for the leadership we are showing in Scotland.
On Tuesday, I was proud to take an important step when I launched the draft national strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness. In it we aim to articulate a vision of the kind of Scotland we need to build. One where community connections are increased, and everyone feels able and encouraged to participate as they want to.
All the evidence tells us that this is an important issue we need to address, a serious public health issue with comparable impacts to smoking or obesity. Further evidence tells us that being lonely or socially isolated can lead to depression and contribute to an increased risk of dementia.
CarersUK suggest that 8 out of 10 carers feel lonely or isolated and in the first half of 2016, 31 per cent of callers to Silverline Scotland identified loneliness in how they were feeling. The GoWell study in deprived areas in Glasgow found that just over 31 per cent of working age adults who were disabled or suffering long term health conditions were frequently lonely and that 17 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women in those areas reported frequent loneliness. Childline figures for 2016-17 reported a large number of counselling sessions focussed on loneliness, with the majority of these with girls.
So we know the significant physical and mental health impacts and we know that particular groups – carers, those living in poverty, young mothers, those in poor health, disabled people, the bereaved, our LGBTI community and those in our ethnic minority communities – all face an increased risk of suffering from social isolation and loneliness.
Above all this is an issue that touches each one of us. It may be something we ourselves have experienced and it is more than likely that we know of someone, or worry about someone, who is right now, feeling lonely or isolated.
So there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Nor is it a problem that can be legislated away or ‘fixed’ with a single initiative.
As a Government, we have already taken important steps. Our Community Empowerment Act strengthens the voices of communities in decisions that matter and has the ambition for truly meaningful local decision making through the decentralisation of power.
We have invested significant resources in supporting local community based projects. Last year, our £500,000 social isolation and loneliness fund demonstrated that small grassroots initiatives can have a profoundly positive impact on the number of social connections a person has.
But this is about more than just money. It is about what all of us can do to build a more connected a cohesive and connected society.
So we have to challenge and tackle the stigma surrounding social isolation and loneliness. Stigma that makes too many reluctant to admit that they are lonely or feel isolated. Stigma that makes you feel somehow, a burden on others. Stigma that takes away whatever confidence you had, and make you retreat from the social connections so vital to all our wellbeing.
Recent work by the Carnegie Trust has identified that kindness can go a long way to reducing social isolation and loneliness. This work has kick started a real conversation about the role kindness can play and I want to ensure our approach to tackling social isolation and loneliness is informed by these conversations.
As with so much of what we as a government need and want to do, tackling social isolation is not just the responsibility of one part of our work – it is a collective responsibility.
So we will continue to promote positive health and wellbeing and support the development of strong and positive relationships by giving our children and young people the best start in life. We will continue to tackle poverty and inequality through the 50 concrete actions in our Fairer Scotland Action plan and continue to support and recognise the key role played by the third sector and volunteers in our society.
And we will continue to ensure our places and spaces encourage people to get out and about and are to shape their own environments. Accessible public transport is vital to people being able to remain socially active, particularly in rural areas so the Transport Bill we will be bring forward will aim to give people access to the best possible services.
People can undoubtedly connect through the tremendous national asset of Scotland’s rich culture and heritage. So we’ll seek to reflect the importance of this in our Cultural Strategy.
And we’ll continue to invest in our country’s national digital infrastructure to ensure that people can connect beyond their local communities.
So we are doing a great deal already and it is right that we see how each part of the work I’ve mentioned – and more – can contribute to the task at hand. We have an important role to play and leadership to show.
But the real impact will come by working together – national and local government of course but working with and listening to, our communities and neighbourhoods, our third sector organisations.
So our draft strategy rightly emphasises that people and communities themselves that have a central role in building and maintaining social connections and supporting those who may be socially isolated; and that the role of government is to create the conditions that allow the ideas and initiatives that grow from communities, to flourish.
It’s an approach which involves everyone – because we need everyone. It’s not top down or ground up - but working together, as Jo Cox said, it is everybody’s business.
The solutions lie in our communities.
We all know a local initiative or activity that works because it goes with the grain of that community. We know of work that is not directly focussed on tackling loneliness but by bringing people together for one purpose, increases and reinforces the social relationships we all need.
The NHS driven initiative to help older people exercise to reduce the likelihood of falls and increase the body’s capacity to recover from a fall, or the men’s shed that draws in a disparate group of individuals who discover talents they didn’t know they had and shared interests that would have gone unknown but for that locally devised, and locally driven opportunity.
Governments don’t do that – people do. And our job, in government and across Parliament, is to recognise that we must use our resources and powers to support and encourage that work and recognise that on this issue the challenge for us all is to show that collective leadership.
The draft strategy sets out the work that is already happening led by Government, the third sector and local communities; sets out the evidence behind the issue and the information to increase our understanding.
But above all, the draft strategy invites all of us all to start a dialogue that is open and co-operative. One that listens and focuses on the task at hand and on the concrete steps we can all take to tackle and reduce loneliness and social isolation.
The draft strategy signals our commitment to tackling social isolation and loneliness. It sets out our belief that we have to do more to empower communities to lead in this area, and that our role is to create the conditions for change to happen and to lead by example. Building a connected and cohesive Scotland is everyone’s business.
Jeane Freeman is the Scottish Minister for Social Security and has responsibility for social isolation and loneliness in the Scottish Government.