Loneliness emerging as major health challenge

It is "toxic to mental health"
  • Deborah Condon

Loneliness is emerging as a major heath challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic and a public health approach is needed to tackle this serious issue, the Institute of Public Health (IPH) has said.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show that the number of people who feel lonely most or all of the time jumped from 7% in April 2020 to 14% in November 2020.

Furthermore, younger people aged 18-34 were most likely to feel lonely all or most of the time, while those aged 70 and older were least likely to feel this way.

"The reality is that some people with lots of friends can still feel lonely and those who live alone may not. Early evidence shows that younger people are disproportionately impacted by loneliness during the pandemic," explained Prof Roger O'Sullivan of the IPH.

However, he emphasised that during the pandemic, "a lot more people have gained personal insight into what it means to be lonely", and while loneliness is a very personal experience, "addressing loneliness is not simply a matter for individuals". It is also an issue for public health and society as a whole.

"There is now a real opportunity to build on the greater understanding, empathy and concern that has been shown towards those experiencing loneliness and to put in place policies and structures to tackle the root causes and to help support healthy choices. We need to take loneliness seriously and recognise that it impacts on both physical and mental health," Prof O'Sullivan insisted.

He made his comments ahead of an all-island webinar on Thursday, which focused on the impact of COVID-19 on loneliness. Over 1,000 people involved in public health, community services and research were due to attend.

Also speaking about this issue, Prof Siobhan O'Neill, Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, pointed out that isolation and loneliness "are toxic to mental health".

"COVID-19 has resulted in many more people feeling alone and disconnected. We should promote an economy of wellbeing, and invest in evidence-based interventions, which would pay dividends across society," she commented.

The IPH suggests the following five tips to help look after your mental health:

-Connect with others. Spend time building and developing your connections. Reach out
-Be active. Find something you enjoy and that works for you, such as walking, jogging, gardening
-Take notice of how you are feeling and your environment. When you feel lonely, listen and take action
-Keep learning. Try something new, e.g. learn a new dance or cook a new recipe
-Give. Do something nice for others e.g. volunteer. This may help you and may help others more.


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