Alex Cole-Hamilton: We face a hidden crisis of loneliness

Half of all those over 75 say that their main source of company is the TV or a pet. Picture: John Devlin
Half of all those over 75 say that their main source of company is the TV or a pet. Picture: John Devlin
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On Christmas Day, 65,000 Scots spent it alone.

It’s not really that surprising when you consider that 200,000 older Scots go half a week or more without a visit or phone call from another human being. Loneliness hides in plain sight, there are lonely people all around us but all too often they’re putting a brave face on it and going through the motions of normality.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is tbhe Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western. Picture: Greg Macvean

Alex Cole-Hamilton is tbhe Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western. Picture: Greg Macvean

While we have come on leaps and bounds in talking about our mental health and understanding that depression and anxiety are nothing to be ashamed of, there is still a stigma around loneliness. It’s much harder to put up your hand and admit to feeling isolated. There’s a fear that people will think there’s a reason you don’t have friends or that you just don’t fit in. No wonder then, that half of all those over 75 say that their main source of company is the TV or a pet.

Of course, there are those who enjoy their own company and who will readily seek out space and time to be alone. But there is a massive difference between those who seek out the peace that solitude can bring and those who have loneliness thrust upon them.

The 19th Century French novelist Balzac once said: “Solitude is fine, but you still need somebody to tell you that it’s fine.” Indeed, it is possible to exist amongst a sea of people and yet still feel totally and hopelessly alone.

Last week the Scottish Parliament came together across party lines to support government efforts towards a national loneliness strategy. Parliament is at its best when we work together and I’m delighted that the chamber accepted my amendment calling for a national falls strategy.

What has falling got to do with loneliness? Well, I’ll tell you. If you’re frail or infirm, the uneven surfaces of the pavements in our capital city can be daunting at the best of times, but at this time of year, in the snow and ice they can seem lethal. This reality can make the difference, between going out to Zumba or bridge club and not. Put simply, fear of falling can dramatically reduce the orbit of your world and with it the social universe available to you. A national strategy to reduce falls wouldn’t need to be rocket science, but it should ready our communities for Arctic weather with well-stocked salt bins, long overdue pavement repairs and handrails around accident hotspots.

Loneliness is not of course the preserve of the elderly, ask any young person who has endured an adverse childhood experience, like bereavement or neglect and they will tell you how isolating trauma, attachment disorder and loss can be. Yet we still don’t even try to identify these young people, let alone help them to recover. A weight of evidence shows us that these events cause so much difficulty for young people in later life and loneliness is right up there.

It’s why Sir Harry Burns put the importance of understanding adverse childhood experience at the heart of his review of NHS targets. We must act on this call of the former chief medical officer and use the data available to us to identify trauma early on, so that those vulnerable young people receive access to trauma recovery.

That can be delivered through the simple act of befriending –one of the most powerful antidotes to loneliness there is for any age group, yet we have seen many such services struggle with core funding in recent years. We need to turn that around.

The Scottish Government has set out loneliness as the next frontier for the focused fire of public policy and for once, I agree with them entirely.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.