This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org. It is part of the In Good Company Special Report.
Two years have passed since the U.K. announced a buzzy and shocking, headline-making position: the Minister of Loneliness — an appointment born from a 2017 report that said nine million of the country’s 67 million people feel lonely some or all of the time, not unlike the same concern facing the United States’ older population.
Tracking progress on foreign government projects is somewhat of an impossible task. It’s a challenge in one’s own country, but navigating another nation’s puzzle of committees and departments and reports and commissions is another beast.
See: Nearly half of Americans report feeling alone
We’ve put together this timeline of events and progress made on the loneliness front in Britain:
2017: Report advises U.K. to assign a Minister of Loneliness
British lawmaker Jo Cox drove the U.K.’s initial work combating loneliness through a commission on the issue until she was murdered in June 2016.
To honor her legacy and pick up where she left off, members of parliament Seema Kennedy and Rachel Reeves continued the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, culminating in the release of a report recommending the country commit to serious action on the issue including the nomination of a lead minister, plus a way to measure loneliness and funding for large initiatives to alleviate the nationwide problem.
The report acknowledged that government action alone could not solve the public health epidemic — a sentiment that has been made abundantly clear by the position changing hands twice already in a year’s time.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness called on mayors, council leaders, public sector leaders, business leaders, employers, community and volunteer groups and everyday citizens to act on the issue as well.
2018: A minister and government strategy emerges
At the beginning of 2018, former Prime Minister Theresa May accepted the report’s recommendations, kicking off the government’s new commitment with a reception to honor Jo Cox and her historic work.
“I am pleased that government can build on her legacy with a ministerial lead for loneliness who will work with the commission, businesses and charities to shine a light on the issue and pull together all strands of government to create the first-ever strategy,” said May at the event.
From there, the country’s Minister for Sport and Civil Society added Loneliness to its portfolio, making lawmaker Tracey Crouch the nation’s first Minister for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness. Her assignment: lead a cross-government group to act against loneliness and make the issue a consistent parliamentary priority.
Also see: Kathie Lee Gifford was ‘dying of loneliness.’ Then she did this to fix it— and it can work for you too.
Nine months later, the government took its first big step with the launch of its inaugural loneliness strategy in October 2018.
Its main components, along with continued governmental support:
- Nationwide adoption of a way to measure loneliness from Britain’s Office for National Statistics beginning with a single, direct question: “How often do you feel lonely?” paired with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) three-item loneliness scale: “How often do you feel that you lack companionship? How often do you feel left out? And how often do you feel isolated from others?”
- A framework to improve and connect social services through things like broadening the use of social prescribing — where professionals refer people experiencing loneliness to supports like involvement in the arts or community groups.
- Communities that promote social connection through reimagined community spaces, transportation, housing and technologies.
- Public health campaigns that raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding loneliness.
“Our strategy sets out a powerful vision for addressing this generational challenge,” said then Minister for Loneliness Tracey Crouch.
But one month later, Crouch handed in her resignation from the position, citing frustration with the government’s decision to delay changes to gambling rules from spring to fall of 2019.
“From the time of the announcement to reduce stakes and its implementation, over £1.6 billion will be lost on these machines, a significant amount of which will be in our most deprived areas including my own constituency,” Crouch said in her resignation. “In addition, two people will tragically take their lives every day due to gambling-related problems, and for that reason as much as any other I believe this delay is unjustifiable.”
Almost immediately after, member of parliament Mims Davies became Britain’s second Minister of Loneliness. Davies told The Yorkshire Post of her personal struggles with feeling lonely in government work and while helping her mother care for her father who was homebound for 25 years after a work accident.
Also see: Once you hit this age, you’re far more likely to feel lonely
Rounding out a year of transition, Davies announced 126 U.K. programs and projects that would benefit from the government’s £11.5 million Building Connections Fund. These included new transportation lines for those at the highest risk of isolation, digital solutions for connecting older Brits to one another and one-to-one support for LGBTQ people dealing with loneliness. One example is a project by charity S4ALL in Stainforth (a town about 200 miles north of London) that was rewarded £36,610 to train younger people to work with older people on digital technology skills.
2019: Is the third time the charm?
Davies built on the solid work in 2018 with her #LetsTalkLoneliness campaign launched in June 2019. She brought life to the issue with a Facebook video announcing a week dedicated to loneliness awareness intended to lessen the stigma associated with feeling alone. Davies also rolled out a £1 million investment in a “Tech to Connect Challenge Prize” to fund innovative digital solutions, 10 of which were awarded.
But in what was referred to as “the July 2019 reshuffle” by Davies’ chief of staff and office manager, Davies moved to the Department for Work and Pensions as its Employment Minister under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Now, the loneliness portfolio is under Baroness Diana Barran — the nation’s third Minister of Loneliness in two years.
“We recently marked the one-year anniversary since the launch of the government’s loneliness strategy by announcing a further £2 million of grant funding to support community projects tackling loneliness,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in an email statement to Next Avenue.
Grace Birnstengel is a writer and editor for Next Avenue. She recently concluded a year-long series on how health care could and should meet the needs of aging Americans. Her other areas of focus include LGBTQ issues and community as well as loneliness and social isolation. Grace holds a bachelor of arts in journalism and gender, women and sexuality studies from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2020 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.