Clearing 2021

Is loneliness the next major public health crisis? How do we determine if loneliness is a threat to public health? What can we do about loneliness in society?

In this blog Dr Dragana Vidovic discusses how the answers to these questions are likely to guide future decisions about public health.

“We, the Minister for Loneliness in the UK and the Minister for Loneliness and Isolation in Japan, firmly believe that tackling loneliness is an important international challenge.” – this statement signals the level of importance and commitment to respond to loneliness-related challenges at an international level.

In their June 2021 statement, the Ministers elaborate on the joint effort to tackle loneliness by sharing data and information on the impact of loneliness on their citizens and their policy approaches. The establishment of the Ministerial posts in the UK and Japan and the collaborative effort between the two governments is just one of the examples that could be used to support the claim that loneliness, indeed, is a major public health crisis. Actions taken by many other countries to bring people together and enact policies to reduce loneliness further illustrate the gravity of the crisis.

Why is loneliness on the agenda?

What spurred this multi-level engagement to tackle loneliness? Was it individual stories, the Campaign to End Loneliness or research reports on the negative impact of loneliness on health? Or a combination of all three?

Scientific research plays a central role in assisting communities to recognise and face a public health crisis. It is the way in which data scientists tell stories and relate their research, that may influence change and compel others to act. Research is vital to establishing the emergence and the impact of a particular issue, and to evaluate the effectiveness of plans and policies to safeguard the public’s health. This is where storytelling skills, translating complex research outputs into a simple and memorable story, is essential for raising awareness of the risks and steps to be taken to effectively respond to a crisis. Loneliness is on the agenda because those who are working to tackle loneliness understand the power of narrative.  

We’ve been working with the Open Innovation Team to see how we can be better communicators. Storytelling has existed throughout the ages, yet, the complexities of human existence still make it challenging to simplify our ideas, according to BBC journalist and trainer Jonathan Stoneman. Researchers are trained to gather scientific evidence and offer predictions on potential crisis trajectories. Recently, more emphasis is being placed on communicating research insights and impactful knowledge exchange between universities and other institutions in a society. This gives university researchers a unique opportunity to actively shape public policy agendas but they need to tell a good story.

Knowledge exchange prompts action

The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK, led by numerous community organisations and supported by research evidence, has led to a publication of the Government Loneliness Strategy in 2018 and a comprehensive institutional and financial plan to tackle loneliness. By citing scientific evidence on the impact of loneliness on health such as risk of early death, heart disease, cognitive decline and other issues, community organisations have drawn the attention of the UK Government and compelled them to act. In turn, the UK Government has commissioned further research into psychological and financial aspects of loneliness, published methodological guidance on assessing loneliness, and committed to provide significant financial and organisational resources to address it. The case of loneliness exemplifies the importance of knowledge exchange pathways:

  • Campaign to End Loneliness utilising research to inform government actions to improve public health, and in turn,
  • Government fostering research activities through commissioning new research and supporting projects that aim to advance understanding of public health issue such as loneliness.

Knowledge exchange is a cyclical model, with a potential to be mutually beneficial to all those involved.

Knowledge exchange is valuable and important, but not without significant barriers.

A July 2021 report by the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and Dr Liz Fawcett showed that a number of potential factors posed a barrier for academic engagement with the UK Parliament, of which most commonly cited were a lack of knowledge of the processes to engage and a lack of time to respond to inquiries. This report is timely and informative, and has provided me with very much needed insights as I prepare to purse knowledge exchange activities as a part of my work with Connected Communities programme.

Share insights to improve health

Connected Communities is a public health initiative, designed to assist lonely and socially isolated individuals to re-connect with their communities and improve their health. It is being implemented in the UK and France, with the University of Essex partnering with local authority organisations to support the delivery and to evaluate programme impact. Under the supervision of Professor Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, from our Department of Government, the programme aims to foster policy exchanges and share insights on best practice models to positively impact individual health, usage of public services and overall social and economic development.

Our programme design, measure selection and survey development was greatly informed by the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) recommendations on the measures of loneliness and wellbeing. The existence of the ONS recommended measures was helpful to us in number of ways: 1) it saved us a great deal of time needed for testing various survey questions and mapping the measurement landscape; 2) ensured that our data collection is comparable with other studies and programmes in the field; 3) enabled us to gather generalizable scientific data. In turn, our aim is to contribute to the evidence-base on the impact of Connected Communities and similar initiatives on people’s health and wellbeing. Furthermore, we look to engage with the local and national-level government representatives in the UK and France to share our insights and shape public health related policies.

As a first step in our knowledge exchange plan, we have committed time and effort to learn about engaging with the Parliament by attending various training sessions provided by the UK Parliament, UPEN, Open Innovation Team and other relevant organisations in the UK and France. By taking this approach we are already addressing two major barriers cited by the UPEN and Dr Fawcett’s report; knowledge and time. Furthermore, following the storytelling workshop by the Open Innovation Team, we examined our storytelling approach in more detail, with a renewed appreciation for the power that stories have to inspire action, and to change our own and lives of others. With this support, we are confident that we will be well-prepared to share insights into local solutions to global issues such as loneliness.