Does Ireland need a dedicated minister for loneliness?

Fianna Fáil senator praises creation of job by Theresa May but psychologist opposes idea

The 2016 census found that 399,815 people in Ireland lived alone. Image: iStock.

The 2016 census found that 399,815 people in Ireland lived alone. Image: iStock.

 

A move by British prime minister Theresa May to appoint a dedicated minister for loneliness has been described by a Fianna Fáil Senator as an “absolutely excellent” idea.

Dr Keith Swanick, the party’s Seanad spokesman on mental health, said he was delighted to see Ms May taking “this epidemic” seriously, describing the move as “a fantastic initiative”.

Ms May appointed Tracey Crouch MP to the role this week following recommendations by the House of Commons’ cross-party Jo Cox Commission, which was set up to address the matter.

Ms Cox, a Labour MP, was murdered in June 2016 by a far-right extremist during the Brexit referendum campaign. Before her death she had sought cross party support for political ways to combat loneliness.

Dr Swanick, a GP based in Belmullet, Co Mayo, called on the Government last month to set up a taskforce on loneliness.

He wrote to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health Simon Harris and Minister for Rural Affairs Michael Ring outlining the impact that loneliness can have on people. He called on the Government to set up a cross-party task force to address the issue, but is yet to receive a reply.

In his letter, Dr Swanick said that “every day of my professional life I meet people who are lonely” and that loneliness “never discriminates between young or old, between rich or poor and between urban or rural.

“It is now at epidemic levels and we all need to play our own part in this battle, including the Government and all policy makers.”

Impact

He told The Irish Times that the impact of loneliness on physical health was “equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day and a study by the London School of Economics found that it cost the UK state an average of £6,000 per person per year”.

Clinical psychologist Maureen Gaffney, however, did not agree with Dr Swanick’s call for such a post to be created in Ireland.

“A minister for loneliness? No. Where would you stop? A minister for depression? A minister for personality disorder? We don’t need a minister for everything,” she said.

Loneliness was “a very, very significant problem,” she said, and “chronic loneliness is extraordinarily debilitating, physically and psychologically.”

Contrary to perception, Dr Gaffney said, loneliness was at its most acute in younger people.

“It peaks at 30, then diminishes significantly through middle age when people are so busy they don’t have time to think.

“It goes up again in the 60s when people retire and contacts as well as routines disappear. It settles down again until very old age at 80 and over, when health demands can be very significant.”

The 2016 census found that 399,815 people in Ireland lived alone, while number of people over 65 and had increased by 102,174 in five years, more than twice the rate of the 15-64 age group.

On average 20,000 people every year turn 65 with the percentage of over-65s in Ireland projected to double, to almost 25 per cent of the population by 2050.

The number of people aged 80 and over is expected to rise from 130,000 to 458,000, an increase of 250 per cent over the same period.