Respondents welcome the draft strategy, and view it as a useful starting point, but feel more needs to be done to ensure it meets the needs of the Scottish people. The Scottish Government should consider ways to increase visibility of social isolation and loneliness as an issue that affects everyone, and while it has a leadership role to play, it should also consider building capacity and empowering communities to provide support. Key reflections from analysing consultation responses included:
1. Leverage existing channels: There is a balance to strike between public expectations of tackling social isolation and loneliness and what is feasible given known funding constraints. Consultation responses highlight what was most important to those that took part and while suggestions may not all be feasible, they help identify priority areas, and point towards opportunities to benefit from existing good work. To combat social isolation and loneliness, the government and key stakeholders need to identify and leverage existing channels and contact points to identify and engage with people at risk of or experiencing social isolation and loneliness. This can be through community and public services (like health and social care), employers, and schools.
2. Importance of the lived environment: The lived environment, which includes transportation, housing and public spaces and digital technology, can either facilitate and enable social connections, or limit them. A lack of well-connected public transportation, safe, affordable and accessible housing and community spaces, and access to broadband contribute to social isolation and loneliness. Where certain groups (for example, those with a disability) are excluded from opportunities to connect, this creates and reinforces social isolation and loneliness. These aspects of the lived environment featured prominently in consultation responses and should be the focus of community investment.
3. Empowering communities: The Scottish Government positioned local communities at the heart of the draft strategy, setting their expectations for a collaborative top-down and bottom-up response to social isolation and loneliness. Yet, respondents set their expectations of the government to facilitate and enable communities to address social isolation and loneliness, particularly by providing funding to local organisations. Respondents may have used 'government' as shorthand because they were uncertain about other more relevant stakeholders that could deliver different strands of work, but without further information we cannot be certain the expectation is not on government. For example, business, schools and social enterprises could be well-placed to fund education and training to tackle misconceptions of loneliness. By leveraging and building upon existing, effective local support, sharing best practices, and supporting communities to maintain their support through funding and investment, a collaborative approach may be possible.
4. Absence of chronic social isolation and loneliness: No distinction was made in the draft strategy about acute and chronic social isolation and loneliness, and responses to consultation questions did not touch on this either. It is worth keeping in mind that many of the features of support reported here are less appropriate for tackling chronic social isolation and loneliness, and that a more individualised approach would be needed with those identifying with this group.
Overall, findings from this consultation suggest social isolation and loneliness is not going to be solved with a 'quick-fix' or new technology. The findings suggest that the way forward is a 'slow-fix', requiring traditional community development and investment that fosters community life through maintenance and funding of public and social services. There are changes large and small, at local and national level, that are needed to create an environment that enables connections to thrive, and community stakeholders in Scotland have different but reinforcing roles to play in delivering and maintaining support.
Role of key stakeholders
Social isolation and loneliness are complex issues with many contributing factors. Addressing them will take time, and require collaboration and coordination between key stakeholders, each of whom has a role to play in addressing social isolation and loneliness.
The Scottish Government was expected to take a leadership role in spreading awareness of social isolation and loneliness and empowering other key stakeholders. The government must also consider the impact of current and future policies, particularly economic policies, and how they might contribute to social isolation and loneliness. Respondents expected the government to invest in communities, and to increase the funding of public services, like transportation and housing, that enable social connection. Finally, in addition to showing leadership, respondents felt the government should support community-led services, share best practice and help to scale up through long-term, sustained investment and funding.
Local authorities, like government, were expected to take leadership at a local level on the issue of social isolation and loneliness and to review how policies might contribute to tackling social isolation and loneliness - for example, the provision of community transport. Respondents felt local authorities should invest in and protect community spaces that create opportunities for social connection. Local authorities were expected to ensure local resources are centrally collated and to sign-post to services so those in need of support can easily find it.
The private sector was seen as well-positioned to help spread awareness of social isolation and loneliness, and to refer employees to available support and resources. Employers should also reflect on their own company policies and consider how they might be contributing to social isolation and loneliness. The private sector could also play a role in funding local or national initiatives aimed at tackling these issues.
Heath and social care workers were expected to leverage existing contact points to identify and support individuals currently or at risk of experiencing social isolation or loneliness. To do this, they require further training to integrate measures of social isolation and loneliness into existing health assessments. They must also be able to easily find and sign-post patients to further local resources in order to more effectively carry out social prescribing.
Third sector organisations are already doing impactful work aimed at reducing social isolation and loneliness, and they need access to long term, sustainable funding sources to have lasting impact. To enable social connection and ensure those in need are able to access support, third sector and charity organisations should aim to provide accessible, affordable, and (where possible) clustered services (incl. internet access) to communities.
Schools were viewed as well-placed to spread awareness and educate students about social isolation and loneliness. To do so, teachers require further training to recognise signs of social isolation and loneliness, and better awareness of available resources so they can sign-post those in need.
Email: Ben Cavanagh