In the last two years, we have all had to find unusual ways to connect to those around us. Whether it was learning to use new technologies to catch up with our relatives or smiling at our neighbours on our daily government-sanctioned walk, the pandemic not only took away our usual pathways to connection, but heightened our awareness of what connection really contributes to our lives.
However, for a significant segment of the population, isolation is not a temporary challenge but a long-term reality. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, 1 in 20 adults (age 16 and over) describe feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. Although we typically talk about loneliness in over-65s, under-25s are also particularly at risk.
Research has shown that loneliness is not just a social problem, but also a public health crisis. Chronic loneliness puts stress on our bodies, leading to lower immunity, increased inflammation, and even increased risk of cardiovascular problems. In fact, the impact on life expectancy is comparable to smoking.
Loneliness is equally harmful to our mental health, with higher rates of depression and cognitive decline in later life. So, unsurprisingly, loneliness and isolation put significant strain on health and social care services.
However, communities can act to end loneliness. Neighbourhoods with high levels of social cohesion have lower rates of mental illness and community groups are increasingly central to public health responses and treatment plans.
For us at WIN, an organisation founded on the friendship between two women of different faiths, connection is very much at the core of what we do and is central to our mission of promoting friendship and embracing difference. Our recent Random Acts of Connection Event, held on zoom on July 22nd, continued this mission by starting an interfaith, intergenerational conversation about connection.
Our speakers, Catherine Agonoglu from Our Minds Matter and Zinzan Gurney from Faiths United Youth Network, shared their own insights on connection and how their organisations work to combat isolation and loneliness. Both stressed that our lives are enriched by supporting others, reminding us that we are all like pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle: each with a different role, but an integral part of the wider community.
When we opened up the discussion to our attendees, everyone had their own stories of small but impactful ‘acts of connection’ from their own community: whether running yoga and dance classes to support people with depression, exchanging home cooked food with other local families, or meeting for prayer or to create art together. Sadly, many have felt a sense of stigma around expressing feelings of loneliness, but our breakout room discussions provided a safe space for this important conversation. Evidence shows that talking about loneliness is a critical first step in tackling it, and it was heartening to share experiences and strategies as a group.
Through our social media challenge the following week, with a daily connection prompt and a bitesize piece of research, we worked to get people engaged and informed about the power of connection and the scale of the loneliness crisis.
We at WIN want to keep this conversation going and will keep bringing women together to build connections and challenge what divides us.
by Maeve Carlin
Cacioppo, J., and Cacioppo, S. (2014) ‘Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation.’ Social and Personality Psychology Compass 8, 2, 58-72.
Jopling, K. (2020). Promising Approaches Revisited: Effective Action on Loneliness in Later Life. Retrieved 13 July 2021, from https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/wp-content/uploads/Promising_Approaches_Revisited_FULL_REPORT.pdf
Manchester Insititue of Education (2021). The BBC Loneliness Experiment. Retrieved 27 July 2021, from https://www.seed.manchester.ac.uk/education/research/impact/bbc-loneliness-experiment/
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