By Emily Brown
With social distancing and self-isolating becoming norms throughout the coronavirus pandemic, a neuroscientist has explained loneliness is ‘considered a bigger health risk now than smoking or obesity’.
Science communicator Alice Gray spoke about the impacts of loneliness after struggling with the issue herself during lockdown, expressing her belief that ‘social prescribing’ is now ‘vitally needed’ to help others in similar situations.
Social prescribing allows for primary care services such as GPs to refer patients to non-clinical services to help deal with mental health issues such as feelings of loneliness, with activities including gardening clubs, dance sessions or group chats.
The Welsh government has included the practice in its list of priorities for the next five years, but Gray believes it needs to be widely available as she pointed out that loneliness impacts people of all ages.
Loneliness is a widespread problem, even prior to [the] pandemic.
It’s not only incredibly isolating, but it’s very stigmatised and often associated with the older generation – despite more young people struggling with loneliness. Three times as many young people deal with loneliness compared to older people.
Like many people, Gray spent long periods by herself in isolation during the pandemic, and after doing so she now recognises she would benefit from a recommendation that would enable her to ‘get on a path out of loneliness’.
The 29-year-old believes the benefits would be far-reaching, as she thinks people ‘underestimate the impact loneliness has on our brain and health – with lonely people being more than twice as likely to have mental health issues and loneliness is considered a bigger health risk now than smoking or obesity.’
Gray continued: ‘I think having access to a service like that [social prescribing] could have impacts on the mental and physical health of people on a personal level, as well as on a broader level.’
Social prescribing often involves patients being linked with a worker called a social prescriber, who helps create a package of services or activities to benefit the person struggling.
One person who has experienced the positives of social prescribing is Nick from Ystradgynlais, Powys, who went through the process after a mental health crisis.
He described social prescribing as a ‘way of helping people deal with the things in their lives that can make them feel unhappy or anxious’, explaining that as these issues need extra support, social prescribing helps patients ‘find lots of different activities and support in your local community that can help you turn things around’.
Nick was referred to a number of different activities and in turn has been able to make new friends and ‘come out of [his] shell’.
In its loneliness action plan, the Royal College of General Practitioners Wales (RCGP Wales) noted that loneliness and social isolation can be ‘as bad for patients as chronic long-term conditions’, putting people at a ‘50% increased risk of an early death’.
RCGP Wales has called for all practices to have their own social prescriber in an effort to help reduce GPs’ workload and allow them more time to focus on patients in need of medical care.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.