Loneliness in Northern Ireland: A call to Action

10 Dec 2020 Kathy Maguire    Last updated: 14 Dec 2020

A NI report launched this week highlights the impact  of loneliness across NI communities and makes an urgent call to the  NI Executive  to respond by driving forward the development of a bespoke Loneliness Strategy for NI.

As over 70 organisations, including NICVA, this week called for a loneliness strategy in Northern Ireland, a new report by the Campaign to End Loneliness  highlights  the need for urgent action to tackle isolation this winter & beyond.

Loneliness in Northern Ireland: A call to action written in collaboration with the Action Group on Loneliness Policy is based on interviews with people at risk of loneliness in NI, academic evidence, insights from key organisations and analysis of loneliness strategies and action plans across UK and Ireland.

Report Findings:

The report is the first study on loneliness to focus solely on Northern Ireland and sets out in detail the impacts and causes of loneliness across all ages. The report showed that:

  • 1 in 3 people are ‘more often lonely’ in NI

  • Chronic loneliness affects 1 in 20 people in Northern Ireland.

  • 71% of people in NI are worried about someone they know being lonely during the winter months because of the Covid 19 restrictions.

  • 88% of people in NI say loneliness has become a bigger problem since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • 71% of people in NI want the Northern Ireland Assembly to do more to tackle the issue of loneliness.

The report highlights that loneliness has a real cost and affects people of all ages.

Whilst  some groups may be at increased risk of becoming lonely – for example, those in ill health, carers, older people, parents, people who have been bereaved and children and adults experiencing poverty – loneliness affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds. It can begin in childhood and lead to chronic loneliness lasting into adulthood.

Overall, one in five people in Northern Ireland report feeling lonely always or often, which represents nearly 380,000 local people.

The report highlights that being chronically – or always – lonely is dangerous for your health and wellbeing, putting  you at higher risk of heart disease, dementia and mental ill-health. For people living alone and with weak social connections, it is as harmful to their health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

For children, loneliness can lead to or exacerbate mental ill health, affect their development, education and long term life outcomes.

The report highlights that loneliness has also been found to result in greater use of health and social care services, and highlights research recently commissioned by the U.K. Government which calculates that the overall monetary impact of severe loneliness is at least £9,530 per person per year.

The report also suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has also, inadvertently, made Northern Ireland’s loneliness problem worse, with lockdown restrictions – while vital to stopping the spread of the virus – inhibiting many of the connections that act as a buffer against feelings of loneliness.

Whilst our closest neighbours in England, Scotland and Wales have all introduced loneliness plans this work has yet to start in Northern Ireland.   The report suggests that a Loneliness strategy for Northern Ireland would join up existing work and drive forward improvements to make a real difference in the lives of people and communities as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions.

Recommendations for next steps:

Whilst local government cannot stop loneliness the report stresses that there is important work  it can do to alleviate it.  The report suggests that an urgent step change in efforts to tackle loneliness is required and makes a number of key recommendations to the NI Executive.

  1. A bespoke and fully resourced Loneliness strategy: A cross-departmental Northern Ireland strategy for loneliness across all ages, embedded in the programme for government with committed resources and a clear timeframe for development and delivery.
  2. Committee inquiry: An ad hoc committee, comprising members from each of the standing committees should be established with comprehensive terms of reference to gather evidence and make recommendations to the NI Executive.
  3. Deliver COVID-19 response to loneliness this winter – supporting communities and service providers and tackling digital inequalities which can exacerbate loneliness.

What a NI  loneliness strategy should commit to:

The report suggests there are a number of practical and effective policies that a loneliness strategy should include:

  • Sustainable funding - Establish a Loneliness and Social Isolation Fund to stimulate innovation and scale up promising approaches to tackling loneliness. Embed a loneliness criterion to existing sources of funding at local, council and regional levels and ensure proactive commissioning of effective interventions, aligned across interagency, cross-sectoral partnership approaches.
  • Lead a public awareness campaign on loneliness - to raise awareness about loneliness across Northern Ireland and reduce stigma.
  • Develop specific loneliness measures responsive to children and young people - for example, through the curriculum in schools and youth service provision and include a range of measures to support children and young people at particular risk of loneliness.
  • Support and develop infrastructure to tackle loneliness and increase social connections -Tackling loneliness should also be prioritised within transport, housing, community planning, community safety, built environment, planning and community spaces. The strategy should enable connections through arts, culture and heritage, sport and physical activity and volunteering.
  • Promote and support opportunities for people to connect - A comprehensive regional mapping exercise of existing loneliness responses which identifies evidence of best practice, areas for improvement, gaps and duplication in provision. A coordinated rollout of active connector services which reach, understand and support people experiencing loneliness should be informed by the mapping.

How to deliver a successful loneliness strategy for Northern Ireland:

Learning from experience in Northern Ireland and the development of loneliness strategies elsewhere the report recommends that there are important principles to consider in development of a NI strategy, that will help make it a success:

Principles of a future loneliness strategy:

  • Leadership and accountability – appoint a NI Executive minister and senior responsible owner with lead responsibility for loneliness.
  • Tackling loneliness is everybody’s business – the NI Executive should act as a catalyst to support a whole society response.
  • Co-design and active partnership – Government should involve experts by experience alongside cross-sectoral stakeholders at all stages of strategy design and development.
  • Scale approaches, prevention and supporting most lonely - Amplify evidence-based good practice and support services and approaches which are targeted to tackle chronic loneliness and prevention.
  • Embed strategy within a rights and equality framework.

Structural mechanisms in a loneliness strategy:

  • A cross-departmental loneliness indicator in the next PfG
  • Establish loneliness champions across departments & non-departmental public bodies. Consider a regional interim Loneliness Champion.
  • A cross-sector Loneliness Implementation Group should be established.
  • Delivered by co-ordinated action across government, statutory bodies, voluntary and community sector and business.
  • Produce an annual report & develop loneliness impact assessment process.
  • Invest in research to address evidence gaps.
kathy.maguire@nicva.org's picture
by Kathy Maguire

Policy Development Officer

[email protected]

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