Levels of loneliness almost doubled in less than a year – from 6.8% in April 2020 to over 13% in February 2021, according to Central Statistics Office (CSO) data.

The numbers experiencing loneliness and isolation can often be higher in rural areas and can lead to mental health problems, Irish Rural Link, the network of organisations and individuals campaigning for sustainable rural development, tells Agriland.

Often, the issue can be worse among farmers, who work alone for long durations and sometimes don’t see another person all day.

Loneliness higher among young people

Irish Rural Link recently held its annual conference, where research on the impact of Covid-19 on loneliness and isolation by Professor Roger O’Sullivan, director of Ageing Research and Development at the Institute of Public Health, was a key focus.

According to Dr. O’Sullivan, levels of loneliness during the pandemic were higher among younger age groups.

A further discussion in the workshop on his study found the different forms of communication used by older people compared to younger people “could have an impact on this”.

“An older person will still pick up the phone and call a neighbour, family member or friend whereas that one-to-one conversation is missing among [young] people and done on group chats, text message etc,” Irish Rural Link explained.

“Also, a lot of projects and measures put in place during Covid-19, as well as media coverage, focused in larger parts on older people and the age cohort who had to ‘cocoon’ during the first lockdown.”

More than just a meal

One such project focused on older people was the Covid-19 Community Outreach Programme, funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development, from March to June 2020. 

The aim of the programme was to make sure that vulnerable people – such as older people, people with long-term medical conditions, and people with additional needs – had access to the highest quality information and support in the safety of their homes. 

As well as this work and with the basic computer classes Irish Rural Link delivers suspended at this time, tutors delivered a ‘buddy system’ with past participants of the classes who were cocooning to refresh their skills and keep them in touch with family and friends through Skype. 

“The computer classes are now back up and running online on a one-to-small group or one-to-one level, equipping those with low digital skills the skills to stay connected with family and friends online,” Irish Rural Link added.

“Access to services and indeed access to transport plays an important role in reducing loneliness and isolation and improving people’s mental health. 

“Having that sense of belonging in your local community as well as a range of activities for people to get interested in is important, but the gatekeepers and those people in the community who support others to get involved in local activities are extremely important.”

Irish Rural Link also pointed out that for people using the Meals on Wheels service, especially during the pandemic, “it is seen as more than just a meal” and can help reduce rural isolation.

“For many, the person delivering a meal may be the only person they might see in the day or week,” the network said.

“With the existence of Meals on Wheels, there is: lower mortality; shorter hospital stays; fostered independent living; reduced need for nursing home care following discharge; daily contact, expression of community inclusion; decline in loneliness and isolation.”

Loneliness a ‘key public health challenge’

As Professor O’Sullivan said, and according to CSO data, younger people, those aged 18 to 34, were most likely to feel lonely all or most of the time, with one in four feeling this way.

The professor feels that taking a public health approach can help tackle the root causes of loneliness.

“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,” he said at an event hosted by the Institute of Public Health earlier this year.

“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.

“During this pandemic, a lot more people have gained personal insight into what it means to be lonely.

“There is now a real opportunity to build on the greater understanding, empathy and concern that [has] been shown towards those experiencing loneliness and to put in place policies and structures to tackle the root causes and to help support healthy choices.  

“We need to take loneliness seriously and recognise its impacts on both physical and mental health.”

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) has recently launched a new website to support youth mental health during the pandemic.

Dr. Helen Coughlan, clinical research fellow in the RCSI Department of Psychiatry said that for years, mental health has been “the most significant health issue affecting young people”.

“Now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, young people’s mental health is being impacted in new and complex ways, and we need to do all we can to support every young person whose mental health and wellbeing might be at risk,” Dr. Coughlan added.