Putting Faith into Action - Tackling Loneliness

Loneliness is an increasingly hot topic. From the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness to a Government-funded national campaign launching next month, society is finally alert to the real damage that can be done when people lack social connections or find themselves feeling lonely. For example, loneliness is thought to increase the likelihood of mortality by 26% (see the Campaign to End Loneliness). Of course, campaigns come and go, but the church has been offering solutions to loneliness for decades.

FaithAction organisation logo and banner

FaithAction, a national network of faith-based organisations involved in social action, has been working on the issue of loneliness with a coalition of charities, Christians Together Against Loneliness. We have also been researching faith groups’ responses to tackling the issue – and, in a way, the results are unsurprising.

Churches and faith groups are involved in a huge raft of activities: from drop-in sessions, often centred around food, to group activities such as craft or singing; from work with young people to support for older people; and from simply having the building open for anyone wanting a chat to help for very specific groups such as new parents or homeless people.

Several factors stand out, however. One is the sheer longevity of the work: when we asked how long activities had been running, it was not uncommon for the answers to be in the region of 30, 40 or even over 50 years.

A second was that faith groups are not simply waiting for lonely people to come to them, although they do play an important role as a community ‘hub’; rather, many are actively involved in reaching out and visiting people in their homes.

Thirdly, unlike some more ‘mainstream’ services, faith groups don’t seek merely to meet a person’s immediate need. Rather, they tend to see the ‘whole person’, and offer a range of support – perhaps not just for the individual, but their wider family too. Again, this can extend over many years. In just one example, someone who arrived with a housing need was not only rehoused, but over the next 10 years they were also given budgeting help and support while they stopped using drugs. At some point they also began volunteering, ‘giving something back’ to the community where they now felt a sense of belonging.

This sense of ‘shared ownership’ running through the core of faith-based charities is the final factor to emerge from the research. It means that activities are often volunteer-powered, and therefore sustainable at low cost (albeit not no cost: supporting volunteers still requires investment). It also means there is a ‘cycle of support’ at work, in which those who receive help are also encouraged to give back. It’s well known that volunteering has health benefits and can increase a person’s sense of wellbeing and purpose in life.

In some cases GPs recognise this value, and are referring people who could benefit to faith-based organisations as part of ‘social prescribing’ initiatives. However, we also heard that some GPs are reluctant to refer people to faith-based provision. Whether this is because of a misconception that provision by faith-based organisations is only for people of the same faith, or a more general reluctance to engage with faith, we don’t know. However, given the sheer scale of what churches and faith groups have to offer, it is clear that those who ignore them are missing a trick.

The Campaign to End Loneliness reports that over three quarters of GPs see between 1 and 5 patients a day who have come in mainly because they are lonely. What they need is not medical help from overstretched services, but friendship and the sense of purpose that faith groups can offer.

FaithAction is therefore calling for a greater recognition, on the part of agencies seeking to tackle loneliness, of what churches and faith groups are doing locally. This doesn’t just mean health services and those involved in social prescribing; it also includes local authorities, MPs seeking to help their constituents and others.  

In the end, it is relationship that really deals with the root of loneliness – and this, above all, is what the church has to give.


See www.faithaction.net/loneliness

FaithAction’s report on loneliness for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society will be launched in parliament on 2 July.

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