The loneliest country in Europe must not take its community supports for granted
Ireland is the loneliest country in the EU, according to a recent report. In the face of such a concerning analysis, we must do all that we can to foster vibrant communities and tackle this increasingly common feeling of isolation.
According to the study, almost 70% of loneliness supports in Ireland are provided by the community and voluntary sector, a term that refers to a wide network of charities, community groups, and social enterprises across Ireland. These supports include Family Resource Centres, Men’s Sheds, call services, and befriending networks.
Most of the specific interventions cited by the study are designed for older adults, with relatively few aimed directly at younger people. This is perhaps unsurprising, as “loneliness supports” for young people aren’t generally referred to as such; we call them sports clubs, choirs, swimming lessons, crafting sessions, film screenings, and skate parks instead.
So, while the study focused on supports which used keywords associated with loneliness in their descriptions, loneliness is, in fact, already being challenged by the community and voluntary sector, even when it is not directly named. Youth organisations, outdoor groups, residents’ associations, community gardens, parent support groups, and even boardgame societies may not directly cite loneliness in their mission statements, but they all play a part in addressing both the causes and consequences of this issue.
Volunteering is also a powerful force in the fight against loneliness. While it may not be our first reason for signing up to clean the local beach, drop off hygiene supplies to a housing service, or shake a bucket with the Christmas choir, volunteering brings with it opportunities to meet new people and make all-important connections.
Taken as a whole, this network of activities and supports offers a powerful guard against loneliness and has the potential to help mitigate other societal issues. A recent report by The Economic and Social Research Institute found that young people who live in areas with a strong social infrastructure experience more positive outcomes than those who do not. A strong social infrastructure includes, among other things, sports facilities and other spaces which provide opportunities to meet up and socialise. Having such infrastructure is associated with a lower risk of depression, higher social trust, and greater confidence in the State, media, and the healthcare system.
The absence of this infrastructure must be addressed at all levels of policymaking. This includes making sure that local services can offer opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. The ESRI report found that civic engagement (specifically, volunteering in local services) may provide a “cushion” for younger people without access to strong social infrastructure. Active participation in these activities leads to greater trust in the State, which in turn leads to greater social cohesion; something that is desperately needed in these increasingly divisive times.
Loneliness, somewhat ironically, is rarely experienced by itself; it tends to occur alongside other issues in people’s lives. Which is why proper social infrastructure must be widely available regardless of individual circumstance. Poor physical and mental health correlates with higher levels of loneliness. So do lower levels of income and education. Any overall attempt to tackle loneliness must address these inequalities. And it is in the community and voluntary sector that we find many existing support and advocacy organisations. Access to housing, healthcare, literacy supports, and disability services, to name just a few, play just as big a part as specific “loneliness interventions”.
A strong community and voluntary sector plays a pivotal role in combatting loneliness and bolstering community resilience. The sector has proven itself in recent years to have the agility and capacity to respond effectively to multiple crises – from housing to health, political unrest to migration – and our government praises its essential work often.
Yet funding for the sector has not recovered since the cuts implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, while demand for our services and supports has increased exponentially since then. Add the impact of inflation on both the sector and the people who look to it for support, and it becomes all too clear that we are expected to do too so much more with so much less. Communities need funding that they can count on into the future – so organisations can plan and develop their services instead of simply struggling to exist. They need funding that reflects the reality of what it costs to make services available to people, including non-optional expenses like financial oversight and basic utilities.
Our sector has moved quickly to help people during the parallel crises of Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and the cost of living. Every day we see dedicated people work to better communities across Ireland. One need only look at the We Act campaign to see the power of diversity and innovation at play. As a representative voice for the sector, we at The Wheel know how central a role it plays in addressing Ireland’s epidemic of loneliness. But this vital role in supporting change must be recognised, understood, and adequately resourced if we want our community and voluntary sector to remain strong enough to push back against this growing tide of loneliness.