The loneliness epidemic in the UK is a huge problem. Over half of those over the age of 75 live alone which is some two million people.

Not that loneliness is just a problem of the elderly. As a church in Belfast we find that students, particularly those from overseas can be particularly lonely and isolated.

Jo Cox worked hard on the loneliness epidemic before her untimely death and now a minister for loneliness, Tracey Crouch, has been appointed.

It seems fairly certain that our individualistic society and loss of stable family structures have made the problem of loneliness  far worse.

What are the effects of loneliness? All of us will experience loneliness at times.  It has been estimated that the effects of chronic  loneliness can be as bad as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. It can affect our behaviour, leading for example to problems with drugs and alcohol, as well as affecting our hearts, hormones and  immune systems.

Loneliness can a potent factor in depression and suicide, as well as leading to sleep loss, anxiety and paranoia.

THE LONELINESS EPIDEMIC

What can be done about it? Well the government initiative is welcome. Perhaps shutting down community resources and libraries needs more careful consideration. Having a funded strategy in place and working together with charities will help, and there is also much that can be done at the local level. In my previous work as a psychiatrist working with the elderly I spent a lot of time trying to encourage lonely and often vulnerable elderly people to join groups and clubs. The nature of the activity was not quite so important as just doing things with other people. And for those who are housebound, linking up willing volunteers with elderly persons can be a lifeline. We can, each one of us, become more alert to loneliness in our local areas. THE LONELY SOCIETY? report is a useful resource and MINDFUL OF THE LIGHT gives further information on mental health conditions that can be affected by the loneliness epidemic.