Institute of Public Health addresses loneliness as a challenge to national health in light of Covid-19 restrictions

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Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

THE Institute of Public Health has addressed loneliness as a ‘key health challenge’ facing the public as a result of pandemic restrictions.

Yesterday’s nationwide webinar, hosted by The Institute of Public Health in Ireland and Northern Ireland, was attended by over 1,000  individuals involved in public health, community and research to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on loneliness.

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The Webinar was opened by the Minister for Mental Health and Older People Mary Butler and Siobhan O’Neill, professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University.  The event brought together “key experts in the areas of loneliness and isolation” to tackle the issue of loneliness during Covid.

In a press release issued yesterday Mary Butler said “The Government is acutely aware of the impact the pandemic has had on all our lives, including individuals’ experiences of loneliness and social isolation.

“The Government is working, together with our partners in the community and voluntary sector, to mitigate these negative impacts. The Government’s “In This Together” and “Keep Well” campaigns have aimed to support health and wellbeing during COVID-19, including supporting and resourcing the Community Call to assist vulnerable people in our communities.”

The latest figures from The Central Statistics Office found that the number of people who experience loneliness ‘all or most of the time’ increased from 6.3% to 13.7% between April and November of 2020.

It revealed that ‘younger people, those aged 18-34, were most likely to feel lonely all or most of the time, with one in four feeling this way’. This age group reported a decrease in ‘overall life satisfaction’ of almost 80% from 2018 to April 2020.

‘The 18-34 year-old age group were most likely to feel nervous (51.2%), downhearted or depressed (45.2%) or lonely (41.5%), At least some of the time in the four-week period prior to interview. Respondents aged 70 and over reported much lower rates, at 13.0%, 14.5% and 17.2% respectively.’

In terms of ‘overall life satisfaction’ individuals in the age category of 70 and over were found to be the least affected.

“The corresponding decrease for respondents aged 70 and over was just over 60%, from 44.6% to 17.6%.

When asked to rate their levels of ‘overall life satisfaction’ on a scale of 0 (not at all satisfied) to 10 ( completely satisfied) the figures were lowest in the age category of 70 and over for whom it dropped from 8.1 to 7.0.

The survey reported ‘People living in rented accommodation were twice as likely to report feeling lonely all or most of the time in November 2020, than those in owned occupied homes (22.3% v 11%)’

Roger O’Sullivan from The Institute of Public health explained  “Our understanding and approach to loneliness is often stereotypical. The reality is that some people with lots of friends can still feel lonely and those who live alone may not.

“Early evidence shows that younger people are disproportionately impacted by loneliness during the pandemic. Although loneliness is a very personal experience, addressing loneliness is not simply a matter for individuals but is also an issue for public health and society as a whole.” he said.

The conference follows the release of the HSE’s National Service Plan 2021, outlining the HSE’s proposals for the €20.623 bn it has received in funding. This figure represents a 21% budget increase on the 2020 National Service Plan.

Fianna Fáil’s Mary Butler stated that  “significant investment was made in mental health in the National Service Plan 2021 with the highest recorded budget in recent years.”

She explained “A key priority outlined in the National Service Plan is the development of a sustainable costed plan for– Sharing the Vision –, the national mental health policy and the commencement of implementation of priority actions of Sharing the Vision in 2021.

“Also outlined in the Plan is the priority to continue implementation of the national suicide reduction strategy Connecting for Life, following its extension from 2020 to 2024. There is a clear commitment within the National Service Plan to recruit 123 new mental health staff in addition to 30 IPS employment specialists this year.

“Of the 123 staff, 29 new posts will be appointed in child and adolescent mental health services to enhance capacity across services. The transition to the new national forensic mental health service, increasing capacity on a phased basis, is also a priority action for 2021.” she added.