Bishop of Bristol highlights the effect of loneliness on health and wellbeing

On 26th November 2015 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Crisp, “that this House takes note of the case for building a health-creating society in the United Kingdom where all sectors contribute to creating a healthy and resilient population.” The Bishop of Bristol, Rt Revd Mike Hill, spoke in the debate:

Bishop of Bristol June 2015The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, for introducing this debate and this very big idea into the Chamber. Already we start to see that the breadth of material that needs to be thought about in relation to creating a healthy society is indeed vast. I sat here for some of the debate thinking were I the Minister—God forbid—how I might respond to such a plethora of concerns that have been articulated. I wish him well with that.


Of course, what we cannot do, as several noble Lords have noted, is expect the Government to solve this on their own, although I think there is a major challenge involved in this for government. That is what I would call the alignment of policy—how do you align policy over a very wide range of areas in life in such a way that human well-being emerges from it?

Your Lordships are very well aware that the danger of these debates is vain repetition. I have no wish to enter into that. In the few minutes available to me, I will focus on a particular aspect of our society at the moment, which causes great concern and, as we have already heard, has some rather serious health outcomes. I speak of social isolation—loneliness. On the Mind website, loneliness is defined as,

“not feeling part of the world”.

It goes on to explain that it is therefore perfectly conceivable—I sense that I might have experienced this in my own life—to be part of a crowd and yet feel extremely lonely. It goes on to talk about the impact of loneliness on an area of health that several noble Lords have mentioned—mental health.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, reminded us with the rather horrendous statistic of the physical health outcomes of loneliness being tantamount to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, loneliness should indeed concern us. It is not just the preserve of the elderly in our society; loneliness exists among a number of groups, including housebound people, those in the dormitory suburbs we speak about, where neighbourliness seems in short supply, young mothers, bereaved people and those who feel discriminated against. Lots of people experience a sense of social isolation and loneliness. A GP in Bristol shocked me recently by saying that a good number of the people who attend her surgery come not because there is anything particularly wrong with them from a health point of view but because they simply want to be heard by somebody for a few minutes and that is their only chance. That is very disturbing, partly because I believe we are social beings. John Donne poetically wrote:

“No man is an island”.

I think we were designed to thrive in community: significant social contacts are very important for us.

It would be very easy for us to sink into a mire of depression around all this, but it is worth saying that there are many groups in society who contribute hugely to creating social networks, or at least the opportunity for social networks and for significant social contact. Here, I think of course of churches, faith groups, charities and clubs, and the many other community organisations that create an environment where people can meet each other and speak. I am also well aware—this is a point that the Government might like to think about—that increasingly some of the bureaucratic apparatus, some of it necessary, is interfering with our need to create a volunteer culture that would service these organisations and, in the end, lead to good health.

Back in 1942, the Beveridge report named the five giant evils that the welfare state was set up to tackle. They were want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness. I certainly would not want to describe loneliness as an evil but it is a growing fact of life in our society, and its destructive impact on human well-being needs further research and further understanding, as well as further imagination in seeking to combat it. How do we create communities of wholeness where people take responsibility? I realise that some of the questions asked this afternoon by me and others might fall into the realm of essay questions, but I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister has to say.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Prior of Brampton) (Con): [extract]..

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made some very interesting comments about variation across the system. It is patchy. We talk about a National Health Service, but it is very different depending on where you live. It was interesting to hear him say that 660 million antidepressants have been prescribed where the underlying problem is loneliness, and that medicine is not a remedy for that. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol quoted John Donne:

“No man is an island”.

We are all “part of the main”. I fear that the bell might be tolling for myself this evening, but he again made a very strong point. Social isolation and loneliness were common themes from many of your Lordships.