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‘One of the Greatest Public Health Challenges of Our Time.’ The U.K. Just Rolled Out Its Plan for Fighting Loneliness

October 15, 2018, 2:04 PM UTC

The British government is taking on loneliness, one dance class at a time.

Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness in January. Now the government is rolling out a strategy to tackle the issue head on.

The strategy has three goals: to better understand what causes loneliness, its impacts and what works to tackle it; to embed loneliness as a consideration across government policy, to the benefit of all of society as well as tailored interventions for specific triggers; and to build a national conversation around loneliness and overcome stigma surrounding it.

One way the government will be meeting these goals is by implementing a practice called “social prescribing.” By 2023, all doctors in England will be able to “refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services” as an alternative to prescribing medication. Such activities could include cooking, dance classes, walking clubs, or art groups, all of which will receive funding from the government and are intended to “reduce demand on the NHS and improve patients’ quality of life.”

In addition to the £20 million ($26 million) the government committed to the effort in January, May announced an additional £1.8 million ($2.3 million) on Monday for community projects, such as cafes, art spaces, and gardens. May also announced that a number of national businesses have taken a pledge to tackle loneliness in the workplace. The government will also partner with Royal Mail in select cities for postal workers to check on lonely people as part of their delivery rounds.

The government found that as many as one-fifth of UK adults feel lonely most or all of the time, which can have effects as detrimental as obesity or smoking. Three-quarters of doctors surveyed in the U.K. said one to five people visit them a day seeking help for loneliness and approximately 200,000 older people can go more than a month without speaking to a friend or a relative, leading May to deem loneliness “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.”