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Loneliness is bad for your health...

Gateway Family Services

Did you know that being lonely is actually harmful to physical health?

Studies show that a lack of social relationships is a big health risk. Researchers have found that it can be as big a mortality risk as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day!

Now, the government has decided that loneliness is a problem worth tackling. In January, Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch to lead cross-government work on loneliness, to “shine a light on the issue” and “bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good”. And in April, this was followed up by the launch of the “Building Connections Fund”, aimed at supporting programmes that “bring people together”.

There’s no doubt that, in this age of austerity, the Minister for Loneliness has a big job on her hands. But we’re very glad that it has become a national talking point.

What are the risk factors for loneliness?

A recent report by the Office for National Statistics gives some food for thought. It identified three profiles of people at particular risk from loneliness:

  • Widowed older homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions
  • Unmarried, middle-agers with long-term health conditions
  • Younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area

Reducing social isolation in Birmingham

At Gateway we support people who fit all three of these profiles, as well as many of the other identifiers mentioned in the report, such as people with financial hardship, and people who don’t feel a connection to their neighbourhood.

Despite a lack of external funding, we are continuing to run the Healthy Futures service, which supports socially isolated people in Birmingham. GPs can refer anyone that needs non-medical help into the service, so that includes people who have issues around housing, alcohol, finances, benefits, and much more. Our Healthy Futures navigators offer a range of one-to-one help, whether that’s a cup of tea and a friendly chat to get through the day, or more complex support that requires a range of specialist help.

And for people with long term health conditions, we help to run a local Patients Health Forum. This group was set up to allow service users to give feedback on local health systems, but over the years it has also grown into quite a social club. So as well as helping with the practicalities, we make sure to really push the social side of things, making sure events are organised regularly and include food, entertainment, and plenty of time for people to chat. Most of the people who go to the Patient Health Forum fit one of the first two profiles mentioned above, and many of the forum members (or, sometimes, their carers) tell us that it provides them with vital social support.

At the first International Social Prescribing Research Conference, in June, Key Speaker Dr William Bird explained how loneliness leads to chronic stress which, via its effects on the endocrine and immune systems, enhances risk of long term conditions. He was keen to promote the concept of supporting people to find “greater value” – that is, not just telling them to do standard physical activity, but working with them to find their purpose.

And this is how we work at Gateway, because we can see that it gets results. In the case of Healthy Futures, as we explained in our own poster presentation at the conference:

"Healthy Futures did not fall into the trap of “doing what’s best” for patients; generally the patients led the support. Gateway believes that asking someone what their priorities are, believing them, and working with them to build self-confidence and resilience creates a programme of support that is more successful and sustainable."

Connecting people

It’s one thing to find people to say hello to, but it’s quite another to feel “plugged in” – to feel part of something; to feel that you’re useful and that your contribution matters. Having things in common is a great starting point. That’s why we’re keen to make sure that all the services we deliver that involve groups of people – for example Solihull Lighten Up, Peer Educators and the Maternity Voices Partnership – work well as social groups, and we encourage people to stay in touch using WhatsApp or Facebook groups, too.

We’ve known for a long time that social isolation has a big impact on health and we’re very glad this is starting to be addressed at a national level. For our part, we will continue to help people to build stronger bonds with others through a range of tailored support.

Membership of the Patient Health Forum is open to anyone who lives in South Birmingham, or is registered with a South Birmingham GP, and lives with a long term health condition. If you or someone you know would like to get involved, give us a call on 0121 456 7820 and ask about the Patient Health Forum. For more information about Gateway Family Services, including Healthy Futures, go to http://www.gatewayfs.org.

Sources

House JS, Landis KR, Umberson D (1988) Social relationships and health. Science 241: 540–545

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D (2015) Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 10(2):227-37