Why Wales needs a new approach to tackling loneliness

Loneliness is bad for us. It’s so detrimental that in 2023 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared loneliness a pressing global health threat because of the growing, and startling, body of evidence demonstrating just how bad loneliness is for human health and wellbeing. Research has associated loneliness with increased risks of dementia by 50%, stroke by 32%, heart disease by 29%, and even an increased risk of early death by 26%. To give a clear benchmark, the US Surgeon General highlights that social disconnection has similar health impacts to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The number of people identifying as chronically lonely across the UK has continued to rise since 2020, raising questions about how well our current approaches to loneliness are working. Are we focussing increasingly limited resources in the right way?

What we’ve learned

The Wales Centre for Public Policy’s Loneliness Inequalities Evidence Review looks at loneliness in a new light and argues that limited public resources could be better spent if loneliness is understood and addressed through the lens of inequalities. This is because loneliness is not equally distributed. Certain groups are more likely to be lonely than others. The review maps the different marginalised groups, identifies the different barriers to belonging that these groups face, and signals for a new approach to overcoming existing barriers and preventing future loneliness.

The international evidence review highlights how groups within society already suffering from societal inequalities, social exclusion, and discrimination — such as those with disabilities, those who are LGBTQ+, migrants, those in economic hardship and in fact, those who are in any way different from the majority — are more likely to experience loneliness. That likelihood increases further when people fall into multiple categories (for example, an older migrant with disabilities). Gaps will continue to widen if we fail to pay serious attention to this new understanding of loneliness and seek to address it differently.

Why do these inequalities develop?

Direct and indirect factors explaining loneliness

The review shows how people from marginalised groups are at greater risk of loneliness in part because how they are treated by society. There are both visible and invisible barriers hindering people from feeling they belong. For example, people from the groups mapped in the review can experience everyday stigma, bullying, and harassment which can make them feel that they don’t belong, leading them to an increased risk of loneliness. There are also less visible dynamics such as people’s feeling of difference from those around them. For example, in a recent engagement on our findings, a neurodivergent person shared:

“If you’re neurodiverse you look  ‘normal’. Assumptions are made about your level of understanding. When it comes to having social conversations in work people tend to use subtext and it’s easy for a neurodiverse person to  ‘get the wrong end of the stick’. Then you get the label of being “odd” or “weird” and then you get excluded from the social side of conversations. You don’t get to be a part of the gossip. It’s hard work to engage and be social.”

Figure 2: Six structural factors likely to influence loneliness inequalities

The review includes graphics that can be used as frameworks for policy makers and practitioners to approach loneliness through the lens of inequalities. Figure 1 shows how interpersonal exclusion (such as stigma or bullying) and difference from dominant society can directly and indirectly lead to loneliness. Figure 2 summaries the six structural factors that can increase loneliness identified by the review. Together they can be used to better identify key barriers to belonging for people and places and amplify the voices of people with lived experience.

How can we mitigate against these inequalities?

In practice, tackling inequalities in loneliness means seeking deeper insight into: what is getting in the way of certain groups meaningfully connecting socially? The answer will look different for different groups and places, but the question remains the same. Although it sounds simple, this would be a radical change from traditional approaches to loneliness that view loneliness as a problem with individuals (such as poor social skills, depressed mood, or lack of social engagement).

From a policy perspective, Wales is well-placed to steer a new course. It already has bold visions to improve wellbeing and equality in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, a Healthier Wales, and various equalities-focused action plans on Anti-racism and Disability, all of which provide direction on how to navigate towards a brighter future. However, Wales needs to use loneliness as a signal that certain barriers to social connectedness still stand in people’s way and take action to address them at the root cause.

Our report clearly shows the root causes of loneliness are not the fault of individuals. Looking narrowly risks further stigmatising and isolating the very people we want to include, especially if we make assumptions about them, without them.

Moving beyond individual approaches to loneliness

If we just focus on ‘loneliness’ as a problem to solve without examining why certain people and groups are more likely to be lonely than others, Wales will fall short on its progressive vision and risk problematising the very people it seeks to include. Loneliness is an issue that cuts across the success of many of Wales’ progressive policies. Acting on loneliness inequalities will make a healthier, more inclusive Wales of more cohesive communities.

The evidence clearly shows that groups that are already the most marginalised and discriminated against are most likely to experience loneliness through no fault of their own. Traditional approaches to loneliness are individualised and don’t go far enough to address and mitigate inequalities. Our approach is about accepting that loneliness is not evenly distributed in society and because of that, we need to look more widely to identify and remove the structural and societal barriers keeping people and groups from connectedness. We need to think, act, and spend increasingly limited resources on root causes to drive down the number of people feeling chronically lonely. The change in approach we are advocating is based on evidence from our international review and can complement and enhance traditional approaches that might be working for some.

It’s down to us all to make Wales a place where everyone feels they belong. We are actively exploring ways to put this evidence into practice to improve outcomes in Wales. We are particularly interested in learning how local authorities are addressing the issue of loneliness.

If you’d like to learn more about our work in this area, contact info@wcpp.org.uk