Loneliness and social isolation are not accidents

This afternoon Maggie Chapman spoke in a Scottish Parliament debate on lonliness and social isolation, which she said are the consequences of a system that seeks to divide us.

We have heard lots of statistics already this afternoon – that a quarter of all adults in Scotland feel lonely or isolated; that those aged between 18 and 25 are most likely to feel lonely, and so on.

These statistics matter, but it is important to look below the numbers, to understand what loneliness means to those who feel it.

Many of them are ashamed that they feel this way. They do not want to talk to family or friends about it. Many would never admit to feeling lonely, and they hide their feelings from others. There is clearly still stigma attached to feelings of loneliness and social isolation. 

And we’ve heard already this afternoon that loneliness has a significant negative impact on people’s physical and mental health. There are clear links between loneliness and anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts and feelings.  

Several colleagues have already talked this afternoon about specific groups of our society that may be particularly at risk of loneliness. Older people, students, disabled people, people of colour, immigrants and refugees, and so on.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation last year highlighted people with existing mental health conditions, those who were digitally excluded, unemployed people, and people who identify as LGBTQIA+ as particularly at risk of experiencing loneliness and social isolation. 

And, of course, we have heard much about how the pandemic and the cost crisis have already affected and will continue to affect people’s abilities to be and feel connected, to be part of something bigger than themselves. 

Because, that is, surely, one of the most important things that make us human: the ability and desire to connect, to be part of community, to enjoy and delight in what we, as social beings, can experience by interacting with others. 

And that is why I am so very grateful to all those community groups and organisations that seek to support so many in exactly this human endeavour – connecting, befriending, building social solidarity and community. 

Others have already highlighted some of the organisations and groups that do exactly that: offering friendship, the chance for a cuppa over knitting or woodwork or gardening. I’d like to mention just a couple of groups in the North East that do this incredible, important, work. 

Community Companions, coordinated by Dundee Volunteer and Voluntary Action, supports adults across the City who either are experiencing or have the potential to experience social isolation. Community companions are matched to people taking into account personalities, hobbies and interests, and general living experiences. Befriending might be a shopping trip, or a chat in a café, or just a walk around a local park. Human contact and connection, doing normal, everyday things. 

Further north, the Grampian Regional Equalities Council specifically supports immigrants including refugees and asylum seekers in Aberdeen and further afield with language cafes. Learning English is an important part of these cafes, and indeed, being able to communicate with others is fundamental to being able to interact with and take part in society. 

But these cafes are so much more than just language classes. They are often the key catalyst in building the relationships with others that can help prevent social isolation and loneliness. It has been made very clear to us in the EHRCJ Committee over the last couple of weeks just how important these connections and relationships are especially for refugees and asylum seekers.  

There are so many other groups I could mention, and so many more beyond that. Each of these requires resources and facilities to do what they do. And I welcome the Minister’s enthusiasm for and commitment to support these groups and organisations. Of course, as others have mentioned, many are already struggling, so the Minister will be busy, I am sure. 

But in so many ways, these groups, and the excellent work they do, are fighting against a wider, systemic issue, trying to usher back the tide of the inevitable. The Minister, in her opening remarks, talked about the importance of prevention in how we tackle public health issues. I agree. But I think we need to look deeper when we consider what are the structural causes of loneliness, of the social isolation, that has such a detrimental effect on so many people’s lives. 

Loneliness and social isolation are not accidents. They are, I think, the inevitable consequences of the system that we all inhabit – the system that seeks to atomise, to divide, to marginalise.

Human connections, enjoying each others’ company, finding solidarity in shared endeavours, are not easily monetised. They do not lend themselves to commodification or profit. And yet, that is what we are told matters. Small wonder, then, that those most at risk of loneliness are often those pushed further out of society. The structural reality of our society means that things that are valued most highly will be closely linked to the things that also cause loneliness and social isolation. 

So I welcome the Minister’s commitment to focus on prevention and to support the things that build social solidarity. But this has to be part of the much bigger challenge to create a society where everyone, regardless of background, age, origin, or identity matters, where everyone has what they need to thrive, and where what is valued is not what we as humans can offer to the economy, but that we are just that – human.