A pandemic called loneliness

When I was asked to attend the event on ‘Tackling loneliness in Wales through the pandemic and beyond’ as a representative for my organisation (Carmarthenshire County Council), I thought it was because I was a care home manager for older adults, and when we hear the word ‘loneliness’ we automatically think of the older generation – predominantly 70 plus and specifically individuals living in care homes. How wrong was I!

What I learnt is that loneliness in Wales affects every age group, in particular younger people, and frighteningly from as young as the age of 7. Younger generations may have found it especially difficult to cope with loneliness or isolation, and at the event we heard that this can have implications for substance misuse among young adults, increased anxiety, and mental health difficulties in those even younger. I assumed that due to advancing technology, and the younger generation being so adept at using a wide range of platforms, that they would have thrived through lockdown. However, I was alarmed to hear at the event that friendships have been fractured, online bullying is likely to have increased during the pandemic, and some communities that have been built online may be making the younger generation unintentionally more isolated and lonely. Whilst many online communities have been supportive and encouraging, there is a risk that the younger generation become over-reliant and dependent on technologies, at the cost of in-person relationships.

The long-term effects of loneliness can be really debilitating. How are we going to identify the people who need help and support as restrictions ease, and what will be the impact of loneliness in the younger generation on society and the economy in the future? How timely will any intervention be, and moving forward how can we prevent loneliness impacting on education, future job opportunities, day-to-day living, relationships, and the next generation? Support that was there before the pandemic will be few and far between coming out of it, and services that were already at breaking point are now becoming completely shattered and overwhelmed.

Whilst I have always had an awareness of the issues facing younger people, I did not understand the magnitude of the pressures moving forward, nor did I consider loneliness as a factor as I did not associate it with younger people; if anything, poverty would have been the first thing to come to mind. The event forced me to acknowledge the stark reality that the pandemic has had on the younger generation. I was frustrated and angry at myself for not considering that loneliness can affect anyone at any time. In fact, it was stated during the event that “you can be in a room full of people, have plenty of friends and a supportive family and still feel lonely”. This really brought loneliness, and how it affects everyone, to the forefront for me.

A positive from the event was the number of diverse organisations all wanting to contribute, help and support, and focus on rebuilding services and society in a post-COVID Wales. It really was an enlightening experience. It is prudent to note that recovering from the impact of COVID is going to be a lengthy and complex process for services, organisations (public, voluntary, 3rd sector, etc.), and individuals, and will need everyone to get involved in one way or another. Communication, collaboration and joint working will be key to moving Wales forward and not leaving anyone behind.

Similarly for older people, or those groups that were shielding, we heard at the event that integrating back into society may also be causing increased anxiety, depression, and dependence on medications and alcohol. Rebuilding people’s confidence is going to be a key focus for communities. Getting people back into work, schools, colleges, training, education, and even daily tasks such as shopping, is going to be a huge struggle for many in society.

Listening to the stories and experiences of others during this two-day event has had a profound and humbling effect on me, and it has opened my eyes to a new pandemic that is slowly rumbling about us, a pandemic with no vaccine and currently no cure. A pandemic called loneliness!