Loneliness is emerging as a key health challenge for the population and a public health approach can help tackle the issue, experts told an all-island webinar hosted by the Institute of Public Health today.
Over 1,000 people involved in public health, community services and research on the island of Ireland – North and South –joined the Institute’s webinar focused on the impact of COVID-19 on loneliness.
The webinar heard from leading experts and community organisations on emerging evidence, policy considerations and challenges faced on the ground.
The event was opened by Mary Butler TD (Minister of State with responsibility for Mental Health and Older People) and Professor Siobhan O’Neill (Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland).
Speakers included Koulla Yiasouma (Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children & Young People); Martin Rogan (CEO at Mental Health Ireland); Professor Brian Lawlor (Consultant Psychiatrist); Denise Hayward (CEO at Volunteer Now Northern Ireland); and Professor Roger O’Sullivan (Institute of Public Health).
Evidence shows loneliness is a significant issue for population health, as people who experience loneliness have a poorer overall quality of life and physical and mental health.
In Ireland, latest CSO research has shown that:
- The number of people who felt lonely all or most of the time doubled between April and November 2020, from 6.8% to 13.7% (CSO).
- Younger people, those aged 18-34, were most likely to feel lonely all or most of the time, with one in four feeling this way (CSO).
- Those aged 70 and over were least likely to feel lonely all or most of the time, remaining relatively unchanged since April (CSO).
- People living in rented accommodation were twice as likely to report feeling lonely all or most of the time in November 2020, than those in owned occupied homes (22.3% v 11%) (CSO).
In Northern Ireland, NISRA research has shown that:
- 1 in every 20 adults report feeling chronic loneliness. (NISRA, 2021)*
- Almost half (47%) of people aged 16-24 report feeling lonely
- Almost a third of people (32%) report sometimes feeling lonely
- 12% of people with a limiting long-term condition reported chronic loneliness.
Experts say that loneliness is emerging as a key health challenge for a lot of people feeling the impact of pandemic restrictions.
Professor Roger O’Sullivan, from the Institute of Public Health, says taking a public health approach can help tackle the root causes of loneliness.
He said: “Our understanding and approach to loneliness is often stereotypical. The reality is that some people with lots of friends can still feel lonely and those who live alone may not. Early evidence shows that younger people are disproportionately impacted by loneliness during the pandemic. Although loneliness is a very personal experience, addressing loneliness is not simply a matter for individuals but is also an issue for public health and society as a whole.
“During this pandemic, a lot more people have gained personal insight into what it means to be lonely. There is now a real opportunity to build on the greater understanding, empathy and concern that have been shown towards those experiencing loneliness and to put in place policies and structures to tackle the root causes and to help support healthy choices. We need to take loneliness seriously and recognise it impacts on both physical and mental health,” Professor O’Sullivan added.
Mary Butler TD, Minister of State with responsibility for Mental Health and Older People, said: “Today’s webinar brings together key experts in the areas of loneliness and isolation and builds on the existing evidence to tackle this challenge, during and beyond Covid. The Government is acutely aware of the impact the pandemic has had on all our lives, including individuals’ experiences of loneliness and social isolation. The Government is working, together with our partners in the community and voluntary sector, to mitigate these negative impacts. The Government’s “In This Together” and “Keep Well” campaigns have aimed to support health and wellbeing during COVID-19, including supporting and resourcing the Community Call to assist vulnerable people in our communities. One of the cornerstones of the Healthy Ireland framework is inclusion and reducing health inequalities. A healthy population is an asset to society, and it is essential that we promote an economy of mental health and wellbeing.”
Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, said: “Isolation and loneliness are toxic to mental health, and Covid-19 has resulted in many more people feeling alone and disconnected. We should promote an economy of wellbeing, and invest in evidence-based interventions which would pay dividends across society. Today’s webinar builds the evidence and brings together expertise, allowing Government and policymakers to make informed decisions to better address this challenge.”
STEPS TO LOOKING AFTER YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Loneliness is a very personal experience. It is important to understand the causes and triggers for your loneliness.
Here are some steps that may help:
- Connect with others – spend time building and developing your connections, reach out.
- Be active –walk, cycle, garden –find something you enjoy and that works for you.
- Take notice – take notice of how you are feeling and your environment – when you feel lonely -listen and take action.
- Keep learning – try something new: learn a language, learn to paint, learn to dance.
- Give – do something nice for others e.g. volunteer – it may help you and may help others more.
For more information please contact: Martin Grant, Communications Officer, Institute of Public Health, firstname.lastname@example.org