Mar 28, 2018

Does BC need a UK-style Minister of Loneliness?

Image: Pxhere

A British Cabinet Minister, Tracey Crouch, has been given the task of coming up with a national strategy to combat an epidemic of loneliness in the UK.

Loneliness is a health problem around the world, and British Columbia is no exception. Social isolation is increasing here and across our country. SFU’s Director of Gerontology, Andrew Wister, notes that one in five Canadians is plagued by loneliness.

Human beings are the most deeply social of all species, which is why we can get physically sick if we feel socially isolated. Part of the reason loneliness hurts so much is that the same parts of our brain that process physical pain also process emotional pain.

According to American psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the pain and stress from loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it is even worse than obesity or being sedentary.

Further, according to Dr. John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist who studied the problem for over two decades, “chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 20 percent.”

In particular, loneliness is a major problem for seniors—a growing part of our population—who often experience the loss of spousal and community social support due to illness or death of family members and friends.

There are numerous causes for the upsurge in loneliness and alienation in the 21st century: the increase in people living alone (over 28 per cent of Canadian households are single-person households), the loss of connection within communities, the increase in mobility, and especially the lack of time—all of which increase toxic stress.

In most cases, a person’s well-being and health is primarily dependent on the social and economic factors in their lives, even more than individual choices.

In most cases, a person’s well-being and health is primarily dependent on the social and economic factors in their lives, even more than individual choices.

“The reasons that people aren’t participating are largely related to time and money,” argues Vancouver Foundation president Kevin McCort. A major cause is the difficulty of finding a job that pays a living wage, which forces many to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. Low incomes also make it more difficult to afford to be social—whether that involves a ski trip, going to the theatre, or even just eating out with friends.

Modern social arrangements are also a key factor. In his insightful book, The Globalization of Addiction, Bruce Alexander, a professor emeritus in SFU’s Department of Psychology, explains:

people around the world … are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life.

The lack of human connection often leads to addiction—not only to hard drugs, but also to relatively innocuous activities like watching television, gambling, shopping, cell phone and social media use (some of which is addictive by design) and even exercise—which can increase feelings of isolation.

While some of the mentioned activities can be somewhat social, experts argue that the quality of relationships is what matters. Health care engagement worker Kasley Killam makes that case in an article in Scientific American:

When you believe that you have people in your life who care about you, and you interact with them regularly, you are better off. For instance, you may be less likely to catch a cold, have a stroke or heart disease, slip into early cognitive decline, and develop depression. You may even … live longer. A study at Harvard University that followed hundreds of people for 75 years identified the quality of people’s relationships as the single clearest predictor of their physical health, longevity, and quality of life.

And as Dennis Raphael, professor of health policy and equity at York University, explained in his book, Social Determinants of Health: Canadian Perspectives, “the extent to which a person possesses the physical, social, and personal resources to identify and achieve personal aspirations, satisfy needs, and cope with the environment” are “primary determinants of whether individuals stay healthy or become ill.”

Given the evidence, BC will be well advised to follow the UK’s lead and appoint a “Minister of Loneliness” to oversee the expansion of programs to reduce social isolation. A focus on strengthening social connections could greatly improve the social and emotional health of British Columbians.

One of this new Minister’s first tasks should be to find ways to support and enhance citizen organizations that help individuals connect to the local community, including local healthcare resources, non-profits that bring people together or help them find services, and government agencies. There are a number of successful and innovative projects that could be scaled up with additional funding and support.

Social care is fundamental to maintaining physical and mental health.

Once we recognize that social care is fundamental to maintaining physical and mental health, it becomes obvious that we need to ensure all British Columbians have access to affordable, quality programming and community events. The list of interventions that can bring people together and reduce alienation and loneliness is long and varied: free classes for seniors about how to improve their physical and cognitive health, meet-ups to help new parents connect with each other and with health professionals, workshops that teach stress reduction techniques, book clubs, tour groups and dance classes, or safe and welcoming spaces for youth to hang out and participate in activities after school.

Some such programs are highlighted in the documentary film, The Remaining Light, which looks at the community-based services that provide care for seniors—an often-invisible part of our health care system.

Sometimes great programs already exist, but a lack of affordable and convenient public transportation prevents those living in poverty or those with mobility challenges (including seniors and people with disabilities) from accessing them. Access to free public transit would make it easier to get to work, social events, and to connect with others, thereby reducing both stress and loneliness. The benefits would be greater for lower-income families. Germany has just announced that it will offer free public transport in five cities to reduce illness and death from air pollution; BC should follow suit.

We can also learn from Portugal—a country that has seen a 50 per cent drop in addiction thanks to decriminalization and programs that are specifically designed to re-create connection between people living with addiction and their communities. It is worth considering the potential of social connection to help in combatting BC’s opioid crisis. As a famous TED talk argues, “the opposite of addiction is connection.” And as Dr. Gabor Maté has rightly observed, “connection is also vital to healing.”

Programs that reduce loneliness and social isolation promote wellness and ought to be seen as key preventative health measures. In addition to helping British Columbians enjoy better lives, these policies will more than pay for themselves in lower health care costs, particularly as the population ages.

Given these increasing challenges, a Minister of Loneliness might just be the game-changer our province needs.

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