Maybe we should emulate the United Kingdom’s fight against another pandemic

Date:

After reading several reports saying that the COVID-19 virus has accelerated a “loneliness pandemic” causing depression, heart attacks, and other major health problems, I called perhaps the world’s best-placed official to talk about the issue: Britain’s minister of loneliness.

I was curious to know whether the United Kingdom is winning its battle against loneliness and social isolation and whether it is doing anything that we should be emulating here. The answer to the latter question is, well, maybe yes.

Baroness Diana Barran, the United Kingdom’s minister of loneliness, told me that her cabinet-level position was created in 2018 after a multi-party parliamentary commission on loneliness concluded that 9 million Britons felt lonely and that this was costing the country a fortune in health expenditures.

Likewise, U.S. studies cited by the Health Resources and Services Administration show that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and that poor social relationships are associated with a 29 percent increase in heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of strokes.

Loneliness-related problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s quarantines, forcing people to stay at home without seeing friends and relatives.

In February, prompted by an alarming rise in mental health problems, Japan created its own ministry of loneliness. And a recent study by the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution recommended creating a U.S. federal task force on loneliness.

Barran, a Conservative Party politician, and former investment banker told me that the most effective way to combat the loneliness pandemic is by going “hyper-local,” providing financial aid — sometimes as little as a few hundred dollars — to existing neighborhood associations such as choirs, dancing groups, small gardening projects or sports teams.

Britain’s loneliness ministry recently announced new “micro-grants” — ranging from $400 to $3,400 — to 840 hyper-local groups. In many cases, the grants helped these groups build a better website, buy uniforms, or rent a place to hold their meetings.

Most of these activities are not publicly branded as aimed to combat loneliness, because that would scare many people away from them, Barran told me.

“If someone said to me, ‘I hear that you’re lonely, and there’s a club for lonely people in town that meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m.,’ you probably wouldn’t get me through the door,” she said. “But if you said to me, “There’s a club for people who started growing vegetables during the lockdown and want to learn more about vegetable growing, I’d be there like a shot because I started growing vegetables during the lockdown.”

The first thing Britain’s ministry of loneliness did was add questions to national surveys, asking people whether they felt lonely. That allowed the government to detect pockets of loneliness, which were often in neighborhoods with many senior citizens or young people.

Barran says that one of the things that most surprised her was the extent to which young people feel lonely. When she took her job, she believed that her target demographic would be the elderly. But, it turned out, it’s young people between 16 and 24, she said.

Asked what she would recommend other countries do, Barran told me it would be not to create big bureaucracies to fight loneliness. Her office has “fewer than 10” full-time staffers.

And she also recommends “avoid top-down solutions” such as “the government saying that we’re going to fund this kind of activity.” It’s the people in their communities who know best what they need, she said.

In addition, she recommends finding ways to fight loneliness through volunteer projects. People who volunteer work feel much more connected to their communities and less lonely. Countries must find ways to help people do volunteer work, “and be part of some kind of volunteer army in their community,” she told me.

Britain seems to have come up with rather obvious and simple solutions to fight loneliness. But then, most countries in the world are not doing the very simple things that can help millions of people feel less lonely, save lives and prevent governments from spending billions in additional health expenditures.

After reading several reports saying that the COVID-19 virus has accelerated a “loneliness pandemic” causing depression, heart attacks, and other major health problems, I called perhaps the world’s best-placed official to talk about the issue: Britain’s minister of loneliness.

I was curious to know whether the United Kingdom is winning its battle against loneliness and social isolation and whether it is doing anything that we should be emulating here. The answer to the latter question is, well, maybe yes.

Baroness Diana Barran, the United Kingdom’s minister of loneliness, told me that her cabinet-level position was created in 2018 after a multi-party parliamentary commission on loneliness concluded that 9 million Britons felt lonely and that this was costing the country a fortune in health expenditures.

Likewise, U.S. studies cited by the Health Resources and Services Administration show that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and that poor social relationships are associated with a 29 percent increase in heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of strokes.

Loneliness-related problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s quarantines, forcing people to stay at home without seeing friends and relatives.

In February, prompted by an alarming rise in mental health problems, Japan created its own ministry of loneliness. And a recent study by the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution recommended creating a U.S. federal task force on loneliness.

Barran, a Conservative Party politician, and former investment banker told me that the most effective way to combat the loneliness pandemic is by going “hyper-local,” providing financial aid — sometimes as little as a few hundred dollars — to existing neighborhood associations such as choirs, dancing groups, small gardening projects or sports teams.

Britain’s loneliness ministry recently announced new “micro-grants” — ranging from $400 to $3,400 — to 840 hyper-local groups. In many cases, the grants helped these groups build a better website, or buy uniforms, or rent a place to hold their meetings.

Most of these activities are not publicly branded as aimed to combat loneliness, because that would scare many people away from them, Barran told me.

“If someone said to me, ‘I hear that you’re lonely, and there’s a club for lonely people in town that meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m.,’ you probably wouldn’t get me through the door,” she said. “But if you said to me, “There’s a club for people who started growing vegetables during the lockdown and want to learn more about vegetable growing, I’d be there like a shot because I started growing vegetables during the lockdown.”

The first thing Britain’s ministry of loneliness did was add questions to national surveys, asking people whether they felt lonely. That allowed the government to detect pockets of loneliness, which were often in neighborhoods with many senior citizens or young people.

Barran says that one of the things that most surprised her was the extent to which young people feel lonely. When she took her job, she believed that her target demographic would be the elderly. But, it turned out, it’s young people between 16 and 24, she said.

Asked what she would recommend other countries do, Barran told me it would be not to create big bureaucracies to fight loneliness. Her office has “fewer than 10” full-time staffers.

And she also recommends “avoid top-down solutions” such as “the government saying that we’re going to fund this kind of activity.” It’s the people in their communities who know best what they need, she said.

In addition, she recommends finding ways to fight loneliness through volunteer projects. People who volunteer work feel much more connected to their communities and less lonely. Countries must find ways to help people do volunteer work, “and be part of some kind of volunteer army in their community,” she told me.

Britain seems to have come up with rather obvious and simple solutions to fight loneliness. But then, most countries in the world are not doing the very simple things that can help millions of people feel less lonely, save lives and prevent governments from spending billions in additional health expenditures.

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