Is it time for a Minister for Loneliness?

Brendan Nottle

I recently had the opportunity to meet with former Conservative British Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The discussion focused on the issue of loneliness. Former British Labour MP, Jo Cox, did a mountain of work around the issue of loneliness. Soon after becoming an MP, Jo set up a cross-party Loneliness Commission with her colleague, Seema Kennedy MP.  Jo’s vision was that the Commission would run for one year and work with charities, businesses and the government to turbo-charge the public understanding and policy response to the loneliness crisis. Tragically, Jo Cox was murdered in 2016, and the Jo Cox Foundation was established by friends and family in her honour. 

In January 2018, the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, responded overwhelmingly positively to the Commission’s recommendations by appointing Tracey Crouch MP as the new Minister for Loneliness, committing to creating a loneliness fund and commissioning an England-wide strategy for loneliness.  

On October 15, 2018, former Prime Minister Theresa May launched the first cross-government strategy to tackle loneliness which set out a series of commitments to help all age groups build connections.

Highlights of the strategy include plans to build “social-prescribing” into the National Health Service. It also includes the first ever “Employer Pledge” to tackle loneliness in the workplace and a new Royal Mail scheme which will see postal workers check up on lonely people as part of their usual delivery rounds. These initiatives were driven by the world’s first Minister for Loneliness.

In my meeting with Theresa May, I outlined the ever-broadening group of people seeking help from The Salvation Army Melbourne, located at 69 Bourke St. It was primarily people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. Today, it includes international students and migrants who were sponsored by family members who now find themselves on their own. It includes people who are employed but have experienced a relationship breakdown. Why the growing influx of people who you would not expect to see at the Salvo’s? Loneliness is the omni present issue for so many of them.

But the issue of loneliness expands beyond the boundaries of our work with the Salvo’s. It has seeped into most sectors, neighbourhoods, families and individual lives right across Australian society.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife, Sandra and I, established the Red Shield Friendship phone line. Each night we would take calls from people who were lonely. It wasn’t a crisis line or a counselling service. It simply existed for people that wanted to chat. We were completely overwhelmed with the response. People from the corporate world, others with disabilities, students and parents would all call. They were from very different walks of life, but they had one thing on comment. They were very lonely.

During our discussion, Theresa May indicated that the Minister for Loneliness was never meant to be a standalone portfolio. Instead, it was designed to work across all government portfolios, to constantly highlight the issue of loneliness. For example, the Minister for Loneliness works with the Minister for Education to ensure young students are being trained in how to identify and address the issue of loneliness in oneself and in others. The Minister for Loneliness has worked with the Minister for Housing to ensure designs for new public, social and affordable housing enable people entering and leaving their premises to have the opportunity to see and meet their neighbours. They have also discussed the vital importance of creating meeting spaces in new and future housing developments to help address social isolation.

The Minister for Loneliness appears to be playing a critical role in constantly raising the pervasive issue of loneliness. The Loneliness Minister also acknowledges that this is not a new issue and it is one that has been made worse by the pandemic.

The 1949 play by Arthur Miller, The Death of a Salesman, highlights the issue of loneliness. It is currently playing at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne. Willy Loman, a struggling salesman, is driven by the elusive American Dream – to reach “materialism Mecca” and have all one’s ills resolved. But Willy acknowledges that despite the facade of success that he has built for the benefit of his family, he is overwhelmed with loneliness. This is highlighted at Willy’s funeral when only a handful of people attend. His family expected hundreds to attend.

Thomas Wolfe, the author of God’s Lonely Man wrote, “the whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few solitary others, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

But the absolute, essential nature of human connection is highlighted by Mahatma Gandhi, when he wrote, “With every true friendship, we build more firmly the foundations on which the peace of the whole world rests”.  Mother Theresa also wrote, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”.

As we enter a State and Federal election year, it is time for our political leaders to seriously address the loneliness epidemic that is affecting our nation.

Will it be the panacea to winning an election? Absolutely not. But will it enable our nation to be one that is far more inclusive and compassionate? Probably, yes. These are qualities that we surely, as Victorians and Australians, want to be known by. At the micro level, let me encourage you to check in on others and simply have a coffee with them and see how they are going. At the macro level, if you have opportunity to raise the issue of loneliness in your workplace or local community, please do so. By constantly raising the issue of loneliness and considering, with others, what can be done to address it is your settings, you are well underway in helping another feel included and validated •

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