Tackling loneliness and social isolation is not only the right thing to do, but if done properly can be surprisingly cost effective.
Here’s a question: How happy are you? If you’re living in Norway, you’re probably quite satisfied with your lot; considerably less so if you’re in Central African Republic. At least, that’s we find by looking at the data from the United Nations 2014–2016 World Happiness Report where the two countries came top and bottom of the rankings, respectively. (In case you were wondering, according to the report ranks Canada as the seventh happiest country in the world.) (1)
Countries around the globe are slowly waking up to the fact that happiness is not some woo-woo concept but that a contented population has significant benefits for society as a whole, both socially as well as economically. Perhaps the most famous example is of the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan where, since 1971 the country has rejected GDP as the only way to measure overall progress—instead preferring to measure prosperity through the principles of gross national happiness. (2)
There is a strong correlation between loneliness and unhappiness. According to Dr. Nick Lake, the joint director for psychology at the U.K.’s Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, some of the biggest predictors or physical or mental health problems stem from loneliness. Perhaps surprisingly, he also suggests that loneliness can almost be as big a risk factor as smoking. (3)
According to a report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9 million Britons—that’s about 14% of the population—often or always feel lonely. Loneliness is expensive too and is thought to cost U.K. employers up to $3.5 billion annually. (4) It’s taken so seriously by the British Government that in January 2018 the U.K. became the first country in the world to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.
Lessons from Frome
Admittedly the small town of Frome, population 28,000, near Bath in the south west of England may seem an unlikely place for a ground-breaking study on how to counteract loneliness. Feted as one of the “Best Places to Live in Britain”5 and “the U.K.’s most stylish town” (6), at first blush Frome does seem to have a lot in its favour. But scratch a little deeper and you’ll see that the town does seem to be a somewhat of a trailblazer, whether it be a town council completely comprised of independents or its innovative approach to dealing with social isolation.
Started in 2013, the Compassionate Frome project was launched by Dr. Helen Kingston at Frome Medical Practice, with the help of Health Connections Mendip and Frome Town Council. The main objective was to give community support to patients who feel lonely and isolated. (7) Dr. Kingston and her practice wanted to see her patients less of medicalized silos, but more as human beings with health problems. The project partnered with local authorities to build a directory of agencies and community groups. They then appointed “health connectors” to help plan care, and then trained volunteer “community connectors” to help patients get the support they needed. Whether working with lunch clubs, exercise groups, choirs or helping with personal problems the main objective was to engage people and break the cycle of loneliness. (8)
In effect, the projects aim is to build more compassionate communities based upon three pillars:
“1. Through making the most of the supportive networks of family, friends and neighbours, people build care and connectedness, love and laughter, sharing companionship and values. Some of this is task-related to caring and some is increasing a sense of belonging in communities.
2. Building networks of support for the routine matters of life, shopping, cooking, cleaning, looking after the garden and pets, providing lifts.
3. Linking to community activity, such as choir, walking groups, men’s sheds, talking cafes and other interest groups where people can make friendships and share life’s events.” (7)
Results have been impressive. In what’s likely to be music to the ears of prudent government officials, the project has not only been a resounding success but is cost effective too. Dr. Kingston enthused that “For every £1 put into the scheme, they saved £6 in emergency admissions.” (6) Her colleague Dr. Julian Abel, who is also involved in the project stated that “While emergency admissions to hospitals across Somerset [the country where Frome is located] have increased by 29%, incurring a 21% increase in costs, Frome has seen admissions fall 17% with a 21% reduction in costs in 2016 to 2017 compared to 2013 and 2014.” (8)
Towards the future
More people are talking about the hidden epidemic of loneliness—and that’s a good thing—but this is just the start. As Frome continues to be one of the least lonely towns in Britain, what’s exciting about this ground-breaking project is not only that it has been a resounding success but has also reduced overall healthcare costs too. What would be really exciting is if other communities across the world take a closer look at the success of this small town, use it as a template and try and emulate it for themselves.
(1) World Happiness Report 2017: United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Accessed January 8, 2019. <https://s3.amazonaws.com/happiness-report/2017/HR17.pdf>
(2) Gross national happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world: The Guardian. Accessed January 8, 2019. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/dec/01/bhutan-wealth-happiness-counts>
(3) The friend effect: why the secret of health and happiness is surprisingly simple: The Guardian. Accessed January 8, 2019. <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/23/the-friend-effect-why-the-secret-of-health-and-happiness-is-surprisingly-simple>
(4) How the World's First Loneliness Minister Will Tackle 'the Sad Reality of Modern Life’: Time. Accessed January 8, 2019. <http://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/>
(5) Frome, Somerset—best places to live in the UK 2018: The Times. Accessed January 8, 2019 <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/frome-somerset-best-places-to-live-crth97bdd>
(6) This Somerset town has been named the most stylish place in the UK: Harpers Bazaar. Accessed January 8, 2019 <https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/culture-news/a20212244/most-stylish-places-uk/>
(7) Frome leads the way in easing the NHS crisis: Frome Times. Accessed January 8, 2019 <http://www.frometimes.co.uk/2018/02/27/frome-leads-the-way-in-easing-the-nhs%E2%80%88crisis/>
(8) The town that’s found a potent cure for illness—community: The Guardian. Accessed January 8, 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/21/town-cure-illness-community-frome-somerset-isolation>
(8) Compassionate Community Project: Resurgence & Ecologist. Accessed January 8, 2019 <https://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article5039-compassionate-community-project.html>
(9) The Town Trying to Cure Loneliness: People Fixing the World: BBC World Service podcast. Accessed January 8, 2019 <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p063rg3z>