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Fighting the loneliness epidemic

Fighting the loneliness epidemic

Madeleine Pennington considers the challenge and the opportunity that churches face when responding to loneliness in the young. 17/06/2019

This Loneliness Awareness Week, Madeleine Pennington considers how the church can respond to the growing ‘loneliness epidemic’.

We are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. Figures vary hugely, but it is estimated that as many as 23% of UK adults feel lonely ‘always or often’, meaning that several millions of Brits are regularly affected. This is an epidemic in a very literal sense: loneliness is a risk factor for dementia, heart disease and stroke, poor mental health, and early death, as well as a key predictor for how likely a patient is to follow a treatment plan. Last year saw Tracey Crouch appointed as the world’s first ‘Minister for Loneliness’ (though she later resigned over fixed odds betting terminals) and the government’s resulting strategy for tackling loneliness was published in October 2018.

Loneliness is often presented as an old person’s affliction. Organisations such as the Campaign to End Loneliness are specifically targeted at the elderly, and it is notable that the vast majority of our participants in Theos’ ongoing social cohesion research have similarly described it in these terms. At one level, they’re absolutely right: Age UK estimates that 1.4 million older people are chronically lonely in this country. Yet while the percentage of over–65s ‘sometimes’ feeling lonely has risen since the 1940s, the percentage experiencing chronic loneliness has remained broadly static over the same period. In an aging population, of course this equates to higher numbers of people in total, but such a rise alone does not account for the phenomenon we are currently experiencing.

What is more striking about the nature of contemporary loneliness is the extent to which it has risen among the young. So much so that in 2018, the Office for National Statistics found that young people aged 16–24 were now the most likely to describe themselves as ‘always or often lonely’. More specifically, they were a staggering sixty–three times more likely than over–75s to describe themselves in this way. And equally worrying was the 14% rise in Childline counselling sessions for loneliness and isolation between 2016/17 and 2017/18, with young girls receiving 80% of their 4,636 sessions.

Of course, loneliness manifests differently at different stages of life, whether as feelings of being misunderstood and undervalued, isolated as a new parent, or bereft after the loss of a life partner. Yet the concerning picture set out by this data is not one of changing individual circumstance. Instead, such figures suggest that loneliness is a growing systemic issue which (by its very nature) it takes a whole village to solve.

To this extent, loneliness is a social cohesion issue. Social isolation does not inevitably cause feelings of loneliness on its own (take a moment to reflect on the fact that 5 million elderly people identify the television as their main source of company, while only 1.4 million suffer from chronic loneliness) but feeling lonely is directly concerned with the shortfall between the quality and quantity of our actual relationships and those of our desired relationships. For this shortfall to be met, we need vibrant and varied communities.

The faith sector has long been on the front line of this provision, and there is a great deal to celebrate in their response to growing and widespread loneliness. As part of our social cohesion research, one church leader told us about an elderly woman who lived opposite the church but had barely left the house for years – that is, until she started coming to their new church–run community café, and was now making friends in the neighbourhood through her visits to the church building. Similarly, we heard of a man whose marriage had broken down, leading him to homelessness and alcohol abuse; he wandered into a local church and, working with a range of their partnership charities, they were able to arrange accommodation and professional training for him within weeks of this first contact. This sort of relationship is not uncommon. Another man went to the local Catholic charity shop and community centre so that a volunteer could help him with his eye drops, because he had nowhere else to go.

On a national level, Near Neighbours’ pioneering scheme to register official “Places of Welcome” (that is, community spaces open at the same time each week, available to everyone, where visitors can find refreshments and a listening ear) is striking for its high uptake among religious buildings: 78% of the venues listed online are associated with a faith community. Religious congregations also clearly function as a source of fellowship for their members, and they are particularly helpful in fostering local links which are otherwise increasingly difficult to achieve in an itinerant society. Recent Theos polling found that 45% of non–religious people disagreed with the statement ‘I feel close to people in my local area’ compared to 28% of religious people, and data from the Pew Research Forum found that religious people also tend to be happier and more civically engaged.

This is all good news for the Church.

Nonetheless, a great deal of Christian community engagement is still directed towards the elderly – and as the scope of the loneliness epidemic expands beyond the older generations, local churches must be prepared to reimagine and expand their responses in turn. Some of this work is already being done: a vast amount of youth work is also delivered by the Church, and worship events themselves are, for now, perhaps some of society’s most intergenerational spaces. For those young people who feel otherwise unseen in wider society, this has the capacity to be truly life–transforming. Yet nobody can deny that Christian churches have generally struggled to engage younger people in recent years. In a society where 70% of the nation’s 16–24 year olds have no religion (and just 2% of young people identify as Anglican) the churches’ future capacity to respond to growing social isolation will stand or fall by their ability to re–engage youth.

This poses a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. After all, young people haven’t turned their backs on spirituality altogether, even if they are exploring it in less predictable (or perhaps, less restricted) ways – whether through ancient shamanism or the mindfulness revolution. For a demographic that recognises itself as over–stimulated and burning out, religious spaces have the potential to offer authenticity, dignity, community, and a sense of higher purpose. This can provide part of the antidote to the changing face of loneliness and, as our recent formation project uncovered, there are many existing positive models to inspire the church in this process of transformation; the best place to start is establishing what it is about alternative expressions of spirituality that is currently attracting young people rather than more traditional Christian approaches to formation. In the words of Meister Eckhart, ‘the price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.’

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Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

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Posted 17 June 2019

Britain, Churches, Communities


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