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As long as austerity continues, #LetsTalkLoneliness is a short-term fix

The government’s Minister for Loneliness, Mims Davies, has launched a new initiative addressing the stigma of feeling lonely: #LetsTalkLoneliness. Inspired by the late Labour MP Jo Cox, who established a commission on loneliness before her death, the campaign aims to tackle a problem that the government claims is widespread: while the world’s population is at the highest it’s ever been, many of us don’t feel like we have anyone we can rely upon to be there for us when we’re feeling low.

According to Davies, loneliness is something that ‘can affect anyone at any time and its impact is in line with smoking or obesity. But we can only begin to help one another if we feel able to understand, recognise and talk about it.’

This rhetoric evokes that of mental health awareness campaigns of recent years, where we are assured that mental illness is something that can affect anyone, and encouraged to talk about the problem in order to fight it. But, not everyone is equally affected by mental illness, or by loneliness, for that matter. Disabled people, for example, are more at risk than able-bodied people. Young adults and the elderly are also particularly impacted.

And what if talking about it isn’t enough?

Austerity (a programme of cutbacks to government spending initiated in 2010 by the ConDem coalition government) and loneliness appear to be connected. Over the past 9 years we’ve seen devastating cuts to benefits, social care, public transport, and mental health services, cuts which have been the most detrimental to society’s most vulnerable, such as disabled people and those on low incomes, who are more likely to be dependent upon public services.

Benefit cuts contribute to loneliness, too, because if you’re struggling to afford essentials, spending money on any kind of social activity is difficult

If you’re a wealthy able-bodied person who drives your own car, for instance, you’re not going to be as badly affected by bus routes being cut as a disabled person who can’t drive and is reliant upon buses to get around.

It’s easy to see how austerity spending cuts like these could contribute to loneliness —  if the bus route to your friend’s house at the other side of your city is cut, and you can’t afford to get a taxi there, your options are limited.

Benefit cuts contribute to loneliness, too, because if you’re struggling to afford essentials, spending money on any kind of social activity is difficult. Benefit sanctions against disabled and chronically people increased 580% in 2013-14, which was always going to be a recipe for isolation.

And recent years have seen libraries, one of the few public spaces where you can engage in recreational activities with no obligation to buy anything, close in droves. It’s a cruel irony that at the same time as people are increasingly financially strained, participating in society is becoming more expensive.

This may be helpful to the individuals who are referred, but I worry that it serves as a distraction from other policies that actually contribute to the problem more than any number of ‘social prescriptions’ can take away from it

Don’t get me wrong, you could be the richest person in the world and be lonely. But money can definitely make it easier to remedy loneliness. For instance, if you’re wealthy, you can pay to see a counsellor if you are lonely, for as long as you like. If you can’t afford private counselling, you’re restricted to a handful of sessions on the NHS. Then it’s back to your GP.

Last year Theresa May announced a plan to enable GPs to refer lonely patients to community activities such as cooking classes and walking clubs. This may be helpful to the individuals who are referred, but I worry that it serves as a distraction from other policies that actually contribute to the problem more than any number of ‘social prescriptions’ can take away from it.

Loneliness has many causes, and it would be reductive to put all of the blame on austerity. However, as long as austerity continues, it’s difficult to see #LetsTalkLoneliness as much more than a sticking plaster.

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