It’s time to talk about loneliness inequalities

In this blog, Josh Coles-Riley explains why the Wales Centre for Public Policy has commissioned a major new review of research on loneliness inequalities – and why WCPP is now planning an event to bring together policymakers, practitioners, researchers and lived experience experts to explore what policy and practice changes are needed to tackle these.

While loneliness is something anyone can experience, it doesn’t affect everyone in society equally. Indeed, research evidence shows overwhelmingly that some groups in society are more likely to experience loneliness than others.

WCPP’s previous research on who is lonely in Wales shows how individual characteristics and circumstances interact to increase risk of loneliness, meaning that loneliness in Wales is most acute for those who already face multiple forms of disadvantage. For example, our analysis of National Survey for Wales data found that while 23% of 16–24-year-olds reported being lonely, this rose to 42% among 16–24-year-olds with a long-term illness or disability. Similarly, while just 8.8% of people with ‘very good health’ reported being lonely, this rose to 23% of those who reported being in ‘fair health’. Moreover, among those in fair health, respondents identifying as White (Welsh, English, British, etc.) report lower levels of loneliness (22.4%) than their counterparts in ‘White other’ and all other ethnic groups (37.5%), who are over two times more likely than the national average to be lonely.

To describe these group-based differences in loneliness, we have started to use the term loneliness inequalities. This is because, in an equal society, loneliness would be randomly distributed – there would be no differences between groups in how much or how often people experience loneliness. The fact these differences do exist suggests that broader societal and structural factors – for instance, prejudice and discrimination, or a lack of accessible social spaces – likely influence people’s vulnerability to loneliness and help explain why some groups are disproportionately affected.

Despite this, mainstream approaches to tackling loneliness tend to treat it as a personal problem and provide individual-level solutions – such as befriending services or cognitive behavioural therapy. While these types of intervention may have their place, an individualised approach to loneliness risks diverting attention away from addressing the societal and structural issues which may be causing loneliness inequalities.

In response to this, we have commissioned a major new review of published research, conducted by some of the UK’s leading scholars of loneliness. The review, by Professor Manuela Barreto, Professor Pam Qualter and Dr David Doyle and due to be published in July, summarises evidence from the UK and internationally about which groups in society disproportionately experience loneliness. These include racially minoritised people, migrants, LGBT+ people, disabled people, those in poor physical or mental health, carers, unemployed people, and people living in poverty. And, for the first time, it brings together international evidence on the wider societal and structural factors which may contribute to loneliness inequalities – helping to explain why marginalised groups are disproportionately affected.

At WCPP, we are also planning an event to bring together the findings of the review with insights from other researchers, practitioners, and lived experience experts. This will provide an opportunity to hear these different perspectives on the nature and causes of loneliness inequalities, discuss and explore their implications, and begin to identify what policy and practice changes are needed to tackle loneliness inequalities. If you are interested in finding out more about this or want to get involved, we’d love to hear from you – email