David Stewart

Social Isolation and Loneliness

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

18 January 2018

This has been an excellent debate with sparkling and well-informed contributions from across Parliament.

Many members referred to the tragedy of the murdered Labour MP, Jo Cox, and the loneliness commission that was set up to tackle the issue that she cared about so passionately.

As many members have mentioned, the commission’s recommendation that there should be a minister responsible for a national strategy to combat loneliness has been accepted by the Prime Minister.

Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, will lead on loneliness and head up the UK Government’s work to tackle a problem that is believed to affect nine million people in the UK.

As Gail Ross said, “we do not have to be alone to be lonely.”

I have personal experience of loneliness and social isolation.

In my early 20s—yes, I was young once—I volunteered with the Samaritans in my home city of Inverness.

Many of the calls that I took on my day shift or overnight were from desperately sad and lonely people, some of whom also had physical and mental health problems.

According to the joint Co-operative Group and British Red Cross report, “Trapped in a bubble: An investigation into triggers for loneliness in the UK”—I refer members to my membership of the Scottish Co-operative Party—people “mistakenly” perceive loneliness

“as an issue faced either solely or predominately by older people."

On a personal level, I was inspired by my volunteering; I trained as a social worker, which led to a 16-year career as a front-line worker and middle manager, with specialised training on mental health.

Loneliness and social isolation have been well documented in the debate as affecting physical as well as mental health.

As we have heard, they lead to greater risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, alcohol consumption and smoking, lower levels of physical exercise and a substantial increase in the chances of dementia among older people.

On top of that, the chances of suffering from isolation and loneliness are greatly exacerbated by social and economic inequalities.

As a result, tackling this public health challenge head on is absolutely key to building a better Scotland.

In my Highlands and Islands region, the likelihood of feeling cut off from society is not helped by the squeeze on public services.

People who live in isolated rural and super-rural areas already have more limited access to support networks, family and friends, local groups or charities, and the situation is made worse with poor public transport links.

Accessibility and affordability are key factors, but the withdrawal of more and more rural bus services and underinvestment in north Highland rail links only emphasise the region’s remoteness.

That said, like other members, I want to mention some excellent local charities whose objective is to mitigate isolation and loneliness.

For example, Highland Hospice’s helping hands befriending service offers home visits to people with terminal illnesses.

They match each person with their own befriender on the basis of their needs, with the befriender able to offer social and practical help.

The new well connected communities project, which is being trialled for four months in the Western Isles, is being supported by Support in Mind Scotland, the mental health charity, and the national rural mental health forum.

Finally, across the Highlands and Argyll and Bute, Befrienders Highland offers befriending by phone, letter and email and in groups.

As I have said, I think that the debate has been excellent.

The minister kicked off by reminding us of the major impact of loneliness and social isolation on health and wellbeing and the fact that that is not restricted to the elderly, and she commended the report by the Equal Opportunities Committee in the previous parliamentary session. She also referred—rightly—to the Jo Cox commission on loneliness.

Like others, I welcome the launch of the draft strategy on social isolation and loneliness.

In a very good speech, Annie Wells said that she was encouraged by the national strategy, and she emphasised the importance of social isolation as an issue and its links as a major public health issue.

She also made a valid point about technology replacing face-to-face contact in modern society.

Monica Lennon flagged up the promise on social isolation and loneliness in Labour’s 2016 manifesto and, like others, talked about the Jo Cox commission.

She also cited the figure of nine million for the number of people in the UK who are lonely and pointed out that, in this year of young people, we need more actions that target young people and make the links with good mental health.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, too, made a valid point about our looking forward to Christmas and new year as a high point in our social calendar when, for many who are socially isolated, it is a very negative time.

He highlighted very well the links between loneliness and mental health.

He also stressed the golden thread of volunteering and the important role that it plays in Scotland.

Kenny Gibson quite rightly said that tackling loneliness and social isolation is important if we are to have a better Scotland, and Jeremy Balfour got the best laugh in the chamber when he mentioned Murdo Fraser’s constant appearances on Facebook.

I am sure that that is correct—I have no personal evidence of it. Mr Balfour also made a valid comment about social prescribing and a key point about getting on well with one’s neighbours.

Graeme Dey also talked about people in communities having a social connection with neighbours and made the valid point, which I would agree with, that it is crucial that we also have a strategy for rural areas.

Finally, Mark Griffin mentioned Jo Cox’s work in Parliament and the commission’s innovative work. I apologise to members whom I do not have the time to mention.

I welcome this positive and productive debate on building a connected Scotland to tackle social isolation and loneliness.

Social isolation recognises no age, no class and no gender.

Let us recognise the passion of Jo Cox’s crusade against loneliness and the importance of her legacy, which lives on in her commission.

All we need is the will to do and the soul to dare.