Have Your Say: Social Isolation and Loneliness Consultation

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on social isolation and loneliness, with a view to developing a national strategy to tackle it. The Government wants to enable local communities to lead work in this area and they want to know what kind of work is already being done on the ground to tackle social isolation and loneliness; and also to ask people how the Government can best support this work. 

Anyone, whether as an individual or a group, is entitled to respond to the consultation. The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland will submit its own response but it would be helpful if others in the Church were to add their voice. 

The Catholic Church and her many voluntary groups contribute to the alleviation of isolation and suffering in several different ways. The Church teaches us the importance of community, especially in safeguarding and promoting human dignity; and she believes that the common good depends on a healthy social pluralism. She is a powerful advocate for the needs of the poor and suffering through the example of Christ, teaching the faithful that one should assist one’s fellow man in his various needs, filling the human community with works of spiritual and corporal mercy.

There can be a multitude of reasons for isolation and loneliness and it does appear to be more prevalent in the ‘affluent’ countries of the West. For example, in Japan there are around 4,000 lonely deaths a week and new business opportunities are opening up for entrepreneurs to specialise in cleaning out apartments or houses where decomposing remains have been found. One man was found in his flat three years after he had died. Nobody had noticed. 

Loneliness is also becoming more common in France where ‘family rupture’ is cited as the prime driver. 

In Germany over 20 per cent of people over the age of 70 are in regular contact with one person, or nobody at all. And in Sweden one half of the country’s population lives in households of one. 

Fifty years on from Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae it is not hard to appreciate that this epidemic of loneliness may, at least in part, be down to the sexual revolution in the West and the introduction of the pill. Ever since its introduction there have been more abortions and more abortions means less people, and less people means an increased likelihood of loneliness. It has driven up divorce rates, driven down marriage rates, and emptied our homes of the laughter of children. It has torn apart the family. 

The West has also experienced declining levels of participation in religion. This, surely, is no coincidence in the face of increasing levels of social isolation and loneliness? Aaron Kheriaty’s article Dying of Despair which was published in First Things highlights this. It reports that a ‘sizeable body of medical research….suggests that prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and practices like cultivating gratitude, forgiveness, and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression, lower the risk of suicide, diminish drug abuse, and aid in recovery.’

With respect to suicide specifically, research by Tyler Vander Weele of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that certain groups remain protected from the rising tide of despair and self-harm. Out of 89,000 participants and over a period of fourteen years the study found that: ‘those who attended any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide. Those who identified as either Catholic or Protestant had a suicide rate about half that of U.S. women in general. Of the 6,999 Catholic women who said they attended Mass more than once a week, none committed suicide. Religious practice turned out to be more important than mere affiliation; self-identified Catholics who did not attend Mass had suicide rates comparable to those of other women who were not active worshippers.’ 

The research is fascinating and it suggests religion has a significant role to play in alleviating social isolation and loneliness. 

Here are some of the ways the Catholic Church helps to alleviate social isolation and loneliness:

  • Gathering at Sunday/weekday Mass
  • Coffee mornings/cafes
  • Funerals and support for the bereaved
  • Pensioner groups
  • The Society of St Vincent de Paul (food and clothing banks, visiting the lonely, prison visits, supporting rehab centres, lunch clubs, caravan holidays)
  • Visiting the sick (including visits by Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist)
  • Soup kitchens
  • Legion of Mary providing support for the homeless
  • Cardinal Winning Initiative providing support for women experiencing crisis pregnancies and abortion
  • Youth clubs
  • Providing a safe space for addiction meetings e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous 
  • Providing local support for refugees and migrants
  • Promoting the work of the Santa Marta Group to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery

This list is not exhaustive. The Church reaches out to many people in a number of different ways, depending on local dioceses and parishes, and it’s not always necessarily elderly people. Increasing numbers of young people are suffering from social isolation and loneliness.

Whilst the consultation document is extensive, there is no requirement to answer every question. You may decide to answer just a few questions. I have highlighted, below, some of the questions you might want to consider. 

This is the link to the consultation paper

And this is the link to the consultation form which you are asked to fill in

Please note the consultation closes on 30 April 


Questions to consider:

1. What needs to change in your community to reduce social isolation and loneliness and increase the range and quality of social connections?

2. Who is key at local level in driving this change, and what do you want to see them doing more of?

3. What does Government need to do nationally to better empower communities and create the conditions to allow social connections to flourish?

7. Are you aware of any good practice in a local community to build social connections that you want to tell us about?