Committee on Culture and Education (CULT)

Not an issue to tackle alone: In 2019, more than 75 million European adults met with family or friends at most once a month and around 30 million European adults felt frequently lonely. Considering the impact of loneliness on health and life satisfaction, what should be done to turn the tide of increasing loneliness in the EU?

By: Muna Shaiye (NL) and Aya Bennis (NL)

Topic video

’Managing anxiety, stress and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic’’, CBC News: The National

The topic at a glance

Loneliness is a feeling of despair as a result of lack of experienced connection to those around you. In Europe, 7% of adults report that they frequently experience loneliness, amounting to a striking number of 30 million individuals.
Loneliness can occur when an individual loses their job, is not active in their community nor is frequently in contact with acquaintances and does not engage in normal societal activities. It is a negative mental situation in itself, can be the basis for a chain reaction of a further concern for mental illnesses such as depression. There is a clear difference between regions where as in the Czech Republic and Hungary, 10% of adults report being lonely, compared to 3% in the Netherlands and Denmark. 
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has prohibited many from social and leisure activities. Therefore, most humans will be heavily impacted by this change, as social contact and connection is scientifically proven to enable us to endure. With physical distancing leading to social isolation, more people are at risk of loneliness than before, and the pandemic has shed a light on the issue of loneliness at any age.

Topic dictionary

Loneliness: an unpleasant feeling derived from low frequency and/or low quality of a person’s social network. 
Social isolation:  a lack of social interaction and a  position in which someone is disconnected from societal networks. It is frequently initiated when a person is not active in social activities that are deemed to be usual such as going to work, school, being physically active, having insufficient contact with beloved acquaintances and lacking the access to community involvement.
Social distancing: the objective situation of a person that suggests that they must minimize the frequency of their social interaction to a large extent.
Quality of life: the standard of health, comfort, and happiness experienced by an individual or group, measured by taking into consideration life satisfaction, feelings and emotions.
Depression: a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. It affects how one feels, thinks and behaves and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. Loneliness is in many instances a symptom of depression and has an effect of weighing down the depressed individual.

Key actors

National Governments have the power and influence in respect to the issue of loneliness. They have the possibility to directly affect and tackle the issue of loneliness, by ensuring that relevant research is conducted, making policies and other initiatives. 
The European Commision (EC) the executive branch of the European Union (EU), setting up strategies, working in collaboration with the Member States and organising for example exchanges for knowledge. 
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as The Campaign of loneliness, which promotes connection between elderly individuals. It also plays an important role in the process of lessening the issue, as they promote social participation, often on a local level.
The Social Protection Committee (SPC) is an advisory policy committee to the Ministers in the Employment and Social Affairs Council (EPSCO). Some of the fields that the SPC encompasses are social protection, social inclusion, healthcare, and long-term care.

Measures in place

A fair amount of measures have been considered in European countries to lessen loneliness, such as technologically based programmes, digital approaches, coordinated care led by nurses, and dynamic policies tailor made by governments for their own citizens. The United Kingdom has taken an even more focused step announcing its Minister for loneliness in 2018.  

There have also been several national and local initiatives to combat loneliness. In Ireland, Friends of the Elderly has set up regular phone calls between older adults and trained volunteers. The Norwegian company no isolation developed a programme to teach inexperienced people to use gadgets such as smartphones to be able to connect with acquaintances. In the Netherlands, Proactive Primary Care Approach for the Frail Elderly (U-PROFIT), a primary care model,  is used by nurses to critically evaluate the health of patients regarding physical, mental and social needs, including loneliness, that is done by a format of questions. 
URBACT programme is an EU-funded initiative under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The programme addresses isolation in cities by engaging locals to tackle issues that are important to them together. VulnerABLE is a pilot project established by the EC aimed to improve isolated and vulnerable people’s health. 
Better Together in Amsterdam North , is a programme that relies on the integration of external information such as health and social services. After gathering information, an assessment including scales in the gravity of loneliness is used. The primary care practitioners work closely with the case manager, the patient, and local social service providers to develop an individualized health and social care plan.

Key conflicts

With regards to loneliness, the feeling of responsibility often emerges. Within the welfare state, the responsibility for loneliness is either laid on the individual or other institutions by not taking enough measures to reduce risks, creating questions who is more responsible for it.. On the other hand, as  mentioned before, loneliness can occasionally progress and lead to several psychiatric and physical disorders. Should we prioritise improving the patient care with the help of health care providers or should we improve the patient’s community by getting them help from the surrounding people in the community?
Due to COVID-19 pandemic, people tend to worry more over the overwhelmed hospitals and the exposure of coronavirus in particular areas rather than their own mental health. They have a tendency  to think as they are not feeling sick enough, while there are people. In addition, many people lost their jobs and avoided hospitals due to the hospital’s costs. These combined causes a grave issue as these people do not seek the right medical help regarding their problem of loneliness. Their physical and mental health is not maintained and therefore risked developing psychiatric and physical disorders which creates troublesome problems to treat. How should the EU and other European countries ensure other medical cases are treated equally next to the COVID-19 treatments?

What is next?

Loneliness and social isolation correlate with feelings of vulnerability, threat and anxiety levels. Loneliness is hence potentially associated with and social dynamics of a society. The Joint Research Center (JCR) is currently examining loneliness and how social cohesion could be negatively affected by it. This brief is one of a series of ‘’science for policy briefs’’ which report the research the JRC has done related to fairness. Among other aspects, it includes how fairly the issue of loneliness is being dealt with where  a comprehensive report on fairness was published in 2019. To combat loneliness, we need to acquire a better understanding of the hidden drivers of loneliness. This way solution forming will be more adequate resulting in more effective measures. There is an graveneed to consider the mental situation of EU citizens when implementing economic and social  policies related to the surge of COVID-19 pandemic.

Key questions

  • What was the effectiveness rate of previous measures? How can they be improved? 
  • What do you see as possible solutions for the rising loneliness? What measures should the EU with its Member States and other European  countries implement? 
  • How does loneliness negatively impact the dynamics of our society?
  • Is there enough research done on loneliness? What aspects  should be more  looked into?
  • Who do you consider accountable for the issue of loneliness in our society?

Links for further research:

Loneliness – an unequally shared burden in Europe”, European Commission
How lonely are Europeans?”, EU Science Hub 
‘’A BRIEF VIEW ON LONELINESS’’, Loneliness in Europe
‘’The impact of COVID-19 restriction measures on loneliness among older adults in Austria’’, Erwin.S et al.