The government has announced the implementation of a loneliness strategy, encouraging GPs to refer patients who are experiencing feelings of loneliness to social activities in the community by 2023.

The practice will be known as social prescribing.

The strategy has three different goals: to develop a better understanding of what causes loneliness; to ensure loneliness and its accompanying social issues are considered when policy-making; and to raise awareness of loneliness as a whole.

How prevalent is loneliness?

Loneliness is a very important public health concern. Three quarters of GPs surveyed for the strategy said that they see between one and five people each day who are suffering from loneliness. Furthermore, it is thought that around 200,000 older people in the UK go over a month at a time without speaking to a friend or relative; and around a fifth of adults feel lonely most of or all of the time.

There are many factors that can cause loneliness, but they are mainly categorised as being either underlying factors (such as personality traits, or cultural or religious background) or a specific event or trigger (such as losing a job or moving home).

What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing is supposed to alleviate the feelings of loneliness that these factors may cause. It is currently in operation under the NHS, with almost 50% of clinical commissioning groups in England contributing towards social prescribing schemes; but it has not yet expanded to a nationwide level.

The loneliness strategy aims to make social prescribing available to everyone by employing more ‘link workers’ who GPs can use to connect people to community groups. This means that GPs will have more scope to offer non-medicinal forms of care, which will hopefully impact people’s health and wellbeing in a positive way.

What else does the loneliness strategy consist of?

Further to these plans for community-related activities, which include dance classes, art groups and walking clubs, the government has collaborated with a number of organisations (including the Co-op, Transport For London, the British Red Cross, Nationwide Building Society and Sainsbury’s) to recognise and support their employees for loneliness-related issues.

As well as creating more opportunities for community activities, the department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is planning to invest £1.8 million in fulfilling the potential of community spaces. This includes accessible green spaces for sport, gardens and allotments as well as other possible hubs. Sport England has also created two new programmes with £1 million from their Active Ageing Fund to focus specifically on tackling loneliness through sport for those over the age of 55.

Loneliness can deeply impact on both physical and mental health and can lead to conditions such as lack of sleep, anxiety, depression. If you are experiencing loneliness it can help to try and convey these feelings to a GP, who can direct you towards community-related activities and other possibilities for social interaction.

You can read more about the strategy on the UK government website.