Sandra Dunham

Early in 2018, the UK created the position of Ministry of Loneliness. In October of the same year, the UK launched its first “loneliness strategy.”

The UK’s rationale for the moves was that it identified loneliness as “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.” The nation’s physicians indicate that loneliness is linked to poor health including heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. They specifically identify it as an issue for the nation’s elderly population, although acknowledge that it can affect people of any age or background.

The UK’s strategy includes “social prescribing,” which allows GPs to direct patients to community activities and volunteer work. Royal Mail will use postal workers to check up on isolated people and new community spaces are being created. In addition to the Ministry of Loneliness, the issue of loneliness is being added to the agenda of other ministries including Housing, Community and Local Government, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Transport, Health and Social Care and Digital Culture, Media and Sport.

Earlier this year, Japan followed the UK’s lead, assigning a minister to deal with problems of isolation and loneliness. Japan’s appointment of a Minister of Loneliness was a response to a rise in the number of suicides in that country, which has the highest suicide rate of any of the seven leading industrial nations. This increase was predominantly among women and attributed to COVID-19. This new ministry has been in existence only since February. As such, little additional information is available about its mandate, plans, or outcomes.

The relationship between social connectedness and mental and physical health appears to be well established. A 2014 article in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research confirms that “Satisfying social relationships are essential for mental and physical well being,” and that loneliness plays a role in developing both physical and mental health issues. Another study suggests that a lack of social connection can be as harmful to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder.

In 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community identified that over the previous quarter century Americans engaged in fewer social activities, participated in fewer organizations, knew their neighbours less, and saw their families less. He suggested that this reduction in social capital led to poorer health outcomes.

Indeed, it has been shown that “the influence of both objective and subjective social isolation on risk for mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality.” Loneliness is at unprecedentedly high levels, especially for young people. And of course we’re used to COVID making everything worse — including isolation.

Though the name Ministry of Loneliness may feel as substantial as John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks, loneliness is, in fact, a serious and significant health problem. If you’re struggling with isolation and/or loneliness, and you feel as if there’s nowhere to find help, please reach out.

Further, CFIC encourages you to get involved with us. Our members and volunteers are part of a large community, working collaboratively to make positive change. Our upcoming virtual conference will provide social opportunities before and after the main event.

In particular, CFIC understands that many people are leaving or are considering leaving their religion. We understand that this entails a struggle with the potential for loss of social connection, not just because of joining fewer ceremonies but also because of loved ones perhaps feeling alienated. If you find yourself in this position, please consider visiting one of our Living Without Religion groups. These are peer-based meetings to support people who are missing the social connections that are typically associated with religious services. You are welcome to join us.