Voices: How do we tackle an epidemic of loneliness and foster a sense of belonging?

·4-min read
Voices: How do we tackle an epidemic of loneliness and foster a sense of belonging?

On 2 May, US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy released an official advisory identifying loneliness as an urgent public health threat with profound consequences for our world.

He joins the UK’s minister for loneliness, Stuart Andrew, along with secretary of state for culture, media and sport Lucy Frazer, who last month released a follow-up report on the first ever cross-government strategy to tackle loneliness in the UK.

These reports show that loneliness is now being recognized as a crisis that’s driving a range of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, and anxiety. As Dr. Murthy writes, “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling – it harms both individual and societal health.”

Analysis from the UK Campaign to End Loneliness and the Office of National Statistics have found that the total number of people in the UK who say they “often” or “always” feel lonely increased from 2.6 million people in 2020 to 3.3 million people in 2022. It’s clear we’re struggling mightily due to a deficit of connection.

The high-level attention on the crisis of social isolation is a welcome development. The UK government has followed up on its commitment with about £30 million to increase volunteering opportunities, as well as substantial new investments in public awareness campaigns and research to better address loneliness.

Still, the question remains: Are governments really equipped to address a crisis that’s so tremendously complex, and yet also so profoundly personal?

The crisis has deeper and wider roots than leaders often acknowledge. And £30 million is a very small sum. Economic and technological developments – including always-on entertainment, automation, food delivery, and now AI chatbots – make it so we don’t seem to need other people the way we once did. For younger generations in particular, social media has largely replaced in-person interaction as the primary means of engaging with other people.

Yet amid all these upheavals, our biological need for real, face-to-face human connection remains the same.

To better understand the crisis of isolation that we’re facing today, I’ve interviewed and worked with hundreds of leaders and thinkers in this growing movement, from medicine to politics to literature. Their answers surprised me.

Healing the crisis of isolation, they say, will require cultivating the experience of belonging – which is connection not only in terms of people, but also place, power, and purpose. We need to build bonds not only through community, but also through rootedness in physical place, feelings of ownership in shared outcomes, and a sense of purpose. 

In exploring this vision of belonging, I’ve seen an extraordinarily broad range of solutions to the current epidemic of isolation. At the community level, organizations like the Thames Opera Company provide a forum for the socially isolated where they are accepted just as they are, regardless of their ability to sing.

Other solutions are more systemic, like the Friendship Bench, a program that revolutionized mental healthcare in Zimbabwe by training grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy, which they deliver to people on community benches. The program shows how to ease social isolation through reciprocity: As the grandmothers counsel others, they feel heard and seen, which helps them feel like they belong. It’s become a model for similar efforts around the world.

We can also consider global solutions, especially ones that use a data-driven approach. Organizations like the Social Progress Imperative are creating new and holistic measures of economic progress and human well-being that, unlike the GDP, account for human connectedness.

Initiatives like these effectively address aspects of the challenge. The key lesson for government leaders: Think bigger. If we want to transform a crisis with devasting implications for physical and mental health, then we need to look at all our policies through the prism of belonging. That may mean controversial decisions – like how we regulate social media companies, or set funding levels for NHS mental healthcare programs.

The US surgeon general’s new report is a step in this direction, offering a six-part plan for how governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations can offer a range of solutions. The UK should develop a similar strategy. Ultimately, the question is whether leaders will apply attention and resources to the challenge.

It’s good news that the UK has a minister for loneliness. The first-of-its-kind appointment made global headlines and raised the profile of a vital issue. Yet this office has too often been relegated to a narrow silo of social policymaking.

The minister has other roles in the portfolio, and doesn’t attend the highest-level interagency meetings. While policymakers alone can’t solve the loneliness epidemic, the public sector can make a difference by applying real resources and a true whole-of-government approach to the challenge.

In short, we need to make the minister of loneliness a little less lonely.

Kim Samuel is an academic, and author of On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation. She is the founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness