Holyrood report: loneliness ‘as damaging to Scots health as poverty and poor housing’


Older people who present to their GP each Monday because ‘they have no-one else for company’, a woman so socially isolated she lived without power for months and young people who ‘can forget what it is like to be in the company of other young people’ are just some examples of the extreme negative effects of social isolation and loneliness, cited in a Scottish Parliamentary Committee report on age and social isolation.

The Equal Opportunities Committee today launches its report on the extent and impact of social isolation on older and younger people living in Scotland.  

The Committee’s report calls on the Scottish Government to:

  • Prioritise loneliness and isolation alongside issues such as poverty and poor housing as part of the public health agenda in Scotland
  • Adopt a national social isolation strategy to tackle social isolation
  • Produce a nationwide publicity campaign to raise awareness and help reduce shame and stigma often associated with ‘admitting to loneliness’.

The Committee’s inquiry, commenced at the beginning of this year heard views from young and older people* experiencing loneliness, and the organisations working to support them.  

Alison Love of the Royal Voluntary Service told the Committee of older people supported by the organisation presenting to the GPs every Monday because ‘they have no-one else for company’.  While Natalie McFadyen White of community charity Impact Arts described a member who, “prior to coming to us, would just sit on the bus all day and travel around the city, because that was all he had to do with his day and it was free with his bus pass.”

Stephen McLellan, chief executive of Recovery Across Mental Health (RAMH), based in Paisley, described the case of a woman who did not ask for help, and was reduced to living without power for six months, subsisting on sandwiches scavenged from a skip. She only came to the attention of support services after a neighbour noticed movement in her home although lights were never on. 

Anela Anwar of Roshni, an organisation that works extensively with minority ethnic communities felt that whilst social media has a part to play, “we sometimes lose connections rather than build them”. And “young people can forget what it is like to be in the company of other young people.”

Margaret McCulloch MSP, Convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee said: 

“The report highlights the stigma people currently face, and how difficult it is to admit to loneliness. Whatever your age, it is unacceptable to feel you cannot  seek help. The health impact in Scotland is too great.  But currently a lack of awareness of the impact of isolation allows it to be ignored.”  

Ms McCulloch continued:   

“For older people we heard there are proven links between loneliness and dementia rates.  We also heard of malnutrition amongst older people affected by loneliness.  For younger people we were told the early effects of bullying and a lack of social inclusion can lead to isolation, in particular for disabled and LGBT young people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. This can have long term effects on their lives.” 

“Social isolation and loneliness is a considerable problem in Scotland and individual citizens, public services and the Scottish Government must take collective responsibility to tackle the situation.”   

The Committee’s report highlights examples of organisations making significant progress in tackling loneliness and isolation in older and younger people. It calls on the Scottish Government to share these important pockets of good practice at a national, strategic level.    

In her evidence to the Committee, Sandra Stuart of Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA)  quoted a woman with complex health issues who had undergone a leg amputation - “I’ve got carers coming in so I am up, dressed and ready to go nowhere by 9am. It’s so frustrating that I can’t get help to go out and do stuff.” With support from GDA the woman is learning to drive and attends a range of programmes and courses. Ms Stuart described how, “Instead of getting up and putting on clean pyjamas, she now has a full diary.” 

Michelle McCrindle of charity Food Train told the Committee that social isolation and loneliness need not be lifelong conditions. “People in their late 90s come to our befriending groups. They thought that their lives were over. They are on their own because their partners have died, and they have been grieving for a while. Their lives have been deteriorating and they have hardly been out of the door for four or five years, but they discover a whole new life because somebody is there to take the first steps with them and encourage them to come along and give things a try.”  


Case studies and accompanying photography available on request.  

*The term ‘young and older people’ is defined as those under-25 and over-50 years. 

The Committee’s inquiry, launched at the beginning of this year, came as current research points to social isolation and loneliness and its potentially devastating effect on mental and physical health, particularly in older and younger people.  

Impacts of social isolation on health  

In 2014 Befriending Networks undertook to summarise the existing research on loneliness, social isolation and health: http://www.befriending.co.uk/assets/downloads/publications/Befriending,%20loneliness%20and%20health-%20Research%20summary.pdf  

  • A US study recently found that loneliness can increase the risk of death by almost 10 per cent
  • Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease and puts people at greater risk of blood clots
  • Loneliness is estimated to be as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
  • A 2006 study of 3,000 women with breast cancer found women without close friends were four times more likely to die than women with 10 or more friends 

In terms of the impact of loneliness on health and social care services, Befriending Networks highlighted:  

  • Loneliness is a predictor of the use of accident and emergency services
  • Lonely people are more likely to visit GPs and other health/social care services (with or without a definable clinical motive)
  • Loneliness is bound up with long-term conditions and chronic illness
  • Alleviating loneliness can prevent/delay the need for intensive institutional care 

Befriending Networks conclude that “therefore in addition to improving the lives of Scottish people, measures taken to address unwanted social isolation and loneliness can also lead to reduced public spending, particularly in health and social care.”

According to research conducted by Age UK (2014):

  • More than 80,000 people aged 65 and over, living in Scotland, said they always or often felt lonely. Across the UK the figure was more than a million
  • Around two in five older people (39% or about 350,000) in Scotland say their TV is their main form of company
  • Around one in six (16%) of those aged 65 and over in Scotland are feeling cut off from society, with a quarter (about 230,000), saying they would like to get out more

The NSPCC carried out research on loneliness among children who call ChildLine, a private and confidential service for children and young people up to the age of nineteen. It found: 

  • Between April 2008 and March 2009, ChildLine counselled 5,525 children about loneliness, sadness and isolation as their main problem
  • Furthermore, 4,399 children were counselled about loneliness as an additional problem  
  • Family relationship problems, bullying and physical abuse were the top problems associated with loneliness (as a main or an additional problem). Depression and mental health problems, school problems and bereavement are also associated with loneliness

The Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee sought views on age and social isolation from individuals, support workers in the health and social services, local authorities and the voluntary sector on the following issues: 

  • Prevalence of social isolation in urban and rural settings
  • Impacts of social isolation, such as loneliness and ill-health
  • Best practice and ideas that can be shared across Scotland, including examples of targeted support or initiatives. (This can include housing, health and third sector projects)
  • Ideas for potentially improving and influencing policy
  • Effective awareness raising of social isolation issues within communities


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