Fianna Fáil Senator Keith Swanick, a GP who runs his own family practice in Belmullet, County Mayo, writes on the topic of loneliness and social isolation. Currently the party’s spokesperson on health and mental health, he was formerly the Secretary of the National Association of Irish General Practitioners.
A few months ago, I was asked why I had started to campaign about the issue of loneliness. My rationale is that, on a daily basis, I see the profound medical and mental health problems that are often exacerbated by loneliness and social isolation. When I first spoke on the issue of loneliness in Seanad Éireann in October 2017, I referred to the scientific, medical and, indeed, public policy research on the issue of loneliness and isolation which suggests, “a lonely person is significantly more likely to suffer an early death than a non-lonely one”.
I decided to take the initiative and establish the Loneliness Taskforce, in collaboration with Seán Moynihan from ALONE. We believed that we needed to ‘turbo–charge’ the response to loneliness and to stop it in its tracks. The taskforce includes a range of people from the community and voluntary sectors, nursing, sport, business, medicine, youth work, psychiatry and NGO’s. From 26 March to 9 April 2018, the taskforce sought submissions from the general public, Oireachtas and Northern Ireland Assembly members, local authorities, charities, public participation networks and volunteer networks across the country, both north and south.
There is a real difference between choosing to be alone and experiencing loneliness. Much of the discussion about loneliness can focus on the elderly and issues such as rural isolation or a lack of services, however, loneliness is as prevalent in the young as it is in the old, it just manifests itself differently. Loneliness places no distinction on location – when I worked as a general practitioner in Finglas, the exact same issues of loneliness and isolation existed in the heart of a busy community as they do in rural Ireland. The reach of loneliness was very evident from the submissions received. The taskforce heard from people who were young, new parents, those who were divorced or a single parent, from people with disabilities, returning emigrants, home carers and entrepreneurs. We can say with certainty that loneliness never discriminates between young and old, rich and poor or urban and rural.
People may question how, in the most interconnected period in history, that there are those who are lonely, but the importance of personal contact and human interaction with others cannot be superseded by technology alone. We are awash with communication options – Facebook, FaceTime, Skype and Snapchat, to mention just a few – but, despite all these communication modes, people are lonelier than ever. We know from psychologists than many young people, who have incredible connectivity online, can experience immense loneliness, in part because of the absence of meaningful personal and human contact.
There is a very real need for ‘Ireland specific’ research. The data that I have seen, about the scale of loneliness in the United States and the UK is very grim and should be a wakeup call to everyone in Ireland. In the UK, research in 2014 indicated that 40 per cent of all older people say the television is their main source of companionship; one-in-three older people live alone with further research showing that loneliness can decrease life expectancy by up to 10 years; the effects of loneliness on a person’s health is similar to smoking over 10 cigarettes a day. In Ireland we realised the harm smoking was causing and we implemented a ‘Tobacco Free Ireland’ plan. We now need a plan to eradicate loneliness. I believe it is possible for Ireland to reverse the trend towards loneliness, we can do it, one conversation at a time.