CALM: How chronic loneliness can affect charities working with the most disadvantaged

Robin Hewings, programme director at the Campaign to End Loneliness talks about what the scarring effect of loneliness arising out of Covid means for charities working with some of the UK’s most disadvantaged groups.

#During Covid-19 people who were already lonely were likely to become chronically lonely. That included people who live alone, are on low incomes, in poor health and from a minority ethnic background. In a nutshell, if you were already facing some kind of disadvantage you are more likely to become chronically lonely in the past 18 months during lockdown.

Post pandemic

Now that social restrictions have been lifted, one might expect that loneliness would go back to normal. However, we found that the pandemic has left a ‘scarring effect’ so that despite restrictions being eased in the Autumn of last year, Covid-19 continues to have an impact on levels of loneliness. 3.3 million people (6.3%) said they were ‘chronically lonely’ - well over half a million more than before the virus hit our shores.

This is a serious concern. Being chronically lonely means saying that you feel lonely ‘often or always' - that loneliness feels like a permanent presence in your life.

The Office for National Statistics has been surveying people every week and found that chronic loneliness did not go up at the beginning of the pandemic. Many of us deeply missed our family and friends - indeed loneliness was cited as the single biggest reason for why the pandemic was affecting their wellbeing. But people could recognise that their experience of loneliness was temporary and likely to change.

It was as the pandemic wore on that more became chronically lonely. As bonds frayed it became harder to imagine oneself not being lonely. It is also because of the way that loneliness affects our psychology. There can be a downward spiral where being lonely affects how we think about our day-to-day interactions and relationships.

What does it mean for charities?

If you’re dealing with people, you’re going to be dealing with loneliness. For charities working with disadvantaged groups the people they work with are more likely to be dealing with chronic loneliness than before the pandemic. It is going to take time for them to recover from the scars of loneliness which deepened during the pandemic.

So if you were already vulnerable to developing chronic loneliness - it is going to be much harder to reach out for help from charities whether it is for debt advice, support with a medical condition or mental health support. Chronic loneliness is a continuing risk to people’s health and wellbeing creating challenges for people who are already accessing services.

What can be done

Understanding how it feels to be lonely can help charities design better services. If you know that people are less self-confident, more likely to feel ‘social threat’ there are things that can be done. One charity told us how they took a consistent approach so their groups always felt welcoming and there were no cliques with people saying ‘you can’t sit there, Fred always sits there’. They made sure that people felt valued when they came and that there would be someone to welcome them through the door to get over the intimidating feeling of stepping into a room of new people. If people didn’t come, they made sure they realised that felt okay - and would always be welcome back.

Different services will have different responses - but building an understanding of the psychology of loneliness into its services will help any charity that supports people to do even better work.

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