The silent epidemic of loneliness
Loneliness and social isolation is an increasingly significant issue in communities. The church can be a key part of the answer, writes Jeremy Sharpe
Recent research carried out by Church Urban Fund found that almost 70 per cent of Anglican leaders consider loneliness and social isolation to be the most significant issues in their communities. It is fair to assume this this is also likely to be reflected across the majority of local communities and therefore relevant to all church denominations.
The past three years has seen concern and interest in the issue rising significantly, with frequent news stories focusing on the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual implications of loneliness experienced by people of all ages and backgrounds. A number of national initiatives have emerged in response to this concern including the Campaign to End Loneliness and Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. Large businesses and charities such as Co-Op and British Red Cross have also invested finance and expertise into addressing the issue. This is in addition to the wide variety of projects and groups which have been operating in communities across the country for (in many cases) decades by charities, churches and faith groups.
Following recommendations made by the Jo Cox Commission in 2017, the government appointed the world’s first ‘Loneliness Minister’ in 2018 and then published its first Loneliness Strategy in October 2018. This strategy contained a variety of proposed initiatives and approaches designed to impact the lives of individuals for whom social isolation is an issue. Some of the primary examples are:
Social Prescribing – in which GPs and health professionals are encouraged to recommend use of social events, activities or groups in addition (or instead of) traditional medication. Part of this initiative includes finance to appoint ‘community connectors’ in most communities by 2023.
Use of postal workers to identify those at risk - this approach is being piloted in some areas with the possibility of being rolled out across the country.
Community Infrastructure – Finance is being made available to make best use of community buildings and space as well as public transport. During 2019, there will be a government campaign focusing on loneliness and social isolation, as well as a national conference and a review of the loneliness strategy in November 2019.
As many churches and faith groups are already playing a crucial role in building relationships within local communities, we are well placed to respond effectively to latest efforts to reach those most on the margins of society as a result of social isolation. This is particularly the case in rural areas where the church is often the only community hub in existence, with post offices, libraries and pubs increasingly closing down.
With the increased use of social prescribing due to take place across the UK in the coming months and years, churches have an ideal opportunity to play a key role in improving the health and wellbeing of local people, within the context of a Christian outreach and mission. In view of the issue of social isolation being so prevalent, this is also an ideal moment for churches, Christian organisations and individuals to prayerfully consider their response in the context of each local community. This can be achieved by a selection of the following:
Engaging with local GP practices to establish the current status in the use of social prescribing locally
If a community connector is already (or soon to be) operating, making contact with this person and keep them informed of groups and initiatives run by local churches.
Considering employing a community connector if you are already engaging within the local area.
Explore options to develop new initiatives which make best use of the skills and experiences of churches and respond most effectively to the priorities of people within the local area.
Pray for those for whom loneliness and social isolation is a daily challenge.
Responses to these issues can take place on an individual, organisational and community/ neighbourhood level, and we therefore all have a responsibility and an opportunity to make a difference to those around us on a day to day basis. We can all look out for our neighbours, those we meet going about our daily routines and those we engage with through church-based activities and events. As we remember the way in which Jesus gave his all for us, may we give of ourselves to those around us each day.
Image | Rhendi Rukmana | Unsplash
Jeremy Sharpe is National Director of the charity, Linking Lives UK, which works with churches and Christian organisations to set up befriending projects in which volunteers visit older people in their own homes. The charity emphasises the need to recognise and celebrate the contributions and experiences of everyone involved which leads to mutual benefits for all involved. Engagement with social events and activities are also encouraged where possible. Further details about the work of Linking Lives UK can be found at www.linkinglives.uk
Jeremy is also chair of a coalition of ten national Christian charities called ‘Christians Together Against Loneliness’, which is working together to raise awareness of loneliness and social isolation among churches and faith groups as well as sharing information about developments on a national level
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