Whilst the Covid-19 outbreak and ensuing lockdown has brought so many new challenges we must now tackle, it also did much to expose and exacerbate already underlying problems.
One such issue is that of loneliness, and the feelings of isolation experienced by people right across the country. A report by the Co-op Group and Red Cross in 2016 found that over 9m people were affected by loneliness in the UK, demonstrating just what a serious and widespread problem it is and has been for so long.
But with the crisis came new conditions that made many people experience loneliness for the first time, and intensified existing feelings in others.
People were kept apart from their friends and family, forced to stay isolated for extended periods, and avoid vital social contact. Familiar support networks were cut whilst anxieties over health and work increased. And for many, the sad loss of a loved one brought bereavement in unnatural circumstances, leading many to process their grief without the support and comfort usually provided by friends and family.
What had previously been largely a hidden problem was brought to the fore by this crisis: we’ve seen a sixfold increase in people experiencing feelings of loneliness.
Many of us are now finding life returning to a form of normality, and can once again socialise, meet loved ones and revive the social interactions we once took for granted. But for others, the long periods of isolation and loneliness experienced during the lockdown will remain the norm.
Many are still unable to get out of the house, or may go for extended periods of time without social interaction. For others, lockdown may physically be over but mentally it goes on – anxiety of depression triggered by lockdown loneliness may not abate even though the triggering situation has passed. Some who experience it will be elderly, but many younger people will feel lonely too – struggling with an illness that simply does not discriminate.
For too long loneliness was a hidden epidemic, but exacerbated by the ongoing crisis, it cannot continue to be ignored.
We can start by recognising that loneliness exists and is experienced by so many people, breaking down the stigma attached to it and acknowledging the impact that the lockdown period has had.
But we can go further, too.
We need a proper action plan from this Government, outlining just how they plan to tackle loneliness and the impact of the lockdown on people’s mental health. This includes utilising the expertise of charities, providing support and funding to services tackling loneliness, and building on the spirit of community and co-operation we saw during the lockdown so people are able to continue looking out neighbours and those who may be vulnerable.
Loneliness has for too long been a hidden epidemic, silently affecting all ages. As the effects of the Covid outbreak and its impact on those suffering from loneliness now become clear, it is vital we take action now to ensure nobody faces this crisis alone.