Britain has recently done something quite remarkable to deal with a prominent social epidemic. And it turns out that phone conversations are a key element of the strategy to combat this growing phenomenon.
Britain has appointed a Minister for Loneliness. Research has indicated that more than 9 million of their citizens often or always feel lonely and, not only that, the health impact can be worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s one massive, expensive problem.
And before you jump to conclusions, it isn’t only elderly citizens who cite loneliness as an issue in their life. Teenagers, new moms, shift workers, caregivers … every profession, race and economic group is impacted by a growing sense of isolation.
Loneliness entered our language in the late 15oos and simply meant “the condition of being solitary”. By 1814 it had taken on a new definition: “the feeling of being dejected from want of companionship or sympathy”. This is the feeling that breeds depression and directly impacts physical health. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they are lonely has doubled from 20% to 40% … resulting in more sick days, more emergency room visits, more strain on society as a whole.
This is an unintended consequence of our ever-advancing technology. Our relationship with our screens makes us less social; our ability to tap on keys to text and send email decreases our real-time conversations. And this breeds loneliness.
One solution has been modeled by a Canadian charity since 1989 – Kids Help Phone. The organization provides 24/7 anonymous, confidential conversation and counselling to young people across the country. And while they help children handle issues such as bullying and abuse, they also take many calls from those who are struggling with isolation and loneliness. Today their services are available through a variety of mediums and platforms, but phone conversations continue to be the foundation of their work.
This simple solution is now appearing in many communities to deter the growth of loneliness. The Silver Line Helpline in Blackpool, England receives 10,000 calls a week from older adults. If appropriate, advisers will offer to link the caller to a Silver Line Friend, a volunteer who makes weekly phone calls or writes letters to those who request it. And in San Francisco The Friendship Line is a 24-hour toll-free, loneliness call-in line run by the Institute on Aging.
Each of our actions, each of our advances can, and does, result in something unexpected. Too often we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, we didn’t see that coming but there’s nothing we can do now.” I don’t believe this to be true. And I certainly don’t believe it when it comes to the growth of loneliness in our society.
I know all of us can pick up the phone and dial a number more often. And I know most of us have someone in our life who would appreciate hearing our voice and having the opportunity to participate in a conversation. It takes so little effort and yet contributes so much.
Let’s all consider being a Minister of Loneliness from time to time. Pick up the phone; make it happen!