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Loneliness can take as much of a toll on mental and physical health

Leading psychologists have warned that loneliness can be as dangerous to people’s mental and physical health as behaviours such as smoking and a lack of exercise, calling for ‘systemic societal change’ this festive season.

The British Psychological Society is urging action from the government to tackle what it calls the ‘scourge’ of loneliness and is calling for the loneliness strategy, published in 2018, to be updated to reflect the impact of the pandemic.

It also wants to see the government to measure the impact of its activity on loneliness, using recommended measures and the Public Health Outcomes Framework.

The call comes as the World Health Organisation recently launched a new Commission on Social Connection and a new study revealed that social isolation, such as living alone, often feeling lonely, or infrequent visits from friends or family, was linked to a higher risk of dying.

Dr Roman Raczka, President-Elect of the BPS, said: “Talk about loneliness is often heightened in the festive season, with many people making more of an effort to pop in to see relatives or neighbours, but the point is loneliness doesn’t just happen at this time of year, it’s a 365 day a year problem.

“The evidence is very clear; loneliness is a massive risk factor in people developing both mental and physical health problems and should be treated as a public health emergency. Loneliness is a scourge on our society and we need concentrated action from the government to address it at a systemic level.

“Individual interventions are great and encouraging people to reach out and check in on people who might be lonely this festive season is important, but it isn’t the answer. We need to look much deeper at the problem and make systemic changes across all aspects of society.

“The 2018 loneliness strategy was a good first step, and positive progress has been made, but with the pandemic having had a huge impact on loneliness and social isolation, the strategy needs revision to reflect the changed world in which we live.”

The BPS is also concerned about the disproportionate impact of loneliness on people living in poverty, disabled people and those with a chronic health condition who may still be shielding from Covid-19 with a recent study revealing persistent, negative differences in health, finances, mental health, trust in politics and life satisfaction among immunocompromised people when compared with the general population.

“We also need to look at the financial cost of loneliness,” adds Dr Raczka. “Social prescribing can play an important role in supporting people and also saving money by reducing visits to GPs for example. This can help ease some of the pressure on our stretched health system and social care system, which is just another reason why we need to take the massive problem of loneliness seriously and why the government needs to begin to implement systemic changes.”

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