Non-Fiction

Does the UK Need a Minister for Loneliness?

Aren’t adequate mental health resources part of making everything run correctly?

The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a “minister of loneliness” to tackle the social and health issues caused by social isolation.

May named the minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, to the new government role. The appointment comes after the release of a report on loneliness last year by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, a committee formed in honour of the 41-year-old Labour MP who was murdered by a right-wing terrorist during the Brexit referendum in 2016. Addressing loneliness was a cause championed by Cox.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” May said at the launch of the new government effort. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

Stewart Dakers of the Guardian reacted positively to the idea of a Loneliness Minister but expressed concern about how effective it would be. This makes sense since it’s hard to argue loneliness isn’t a problem in Britain. The Campaign to End Loneliness, a British philanthropy, says that more than half of Britons over 75 live alone. And about half a million older Britons can go a week without even seeing anyone.

But what is the cause of this? You might think that the blame rests on families who leave their old folks behind but that’s not the whole picture. It’s also created by society. The gradual move from public to private lives has been in motion for decades. Nowadays we often define our identity in terms of the brands we like. Social relationships obviously aren’t dead but they’re not what they were. You’ll often hear some of the older generation bemoaning the advance of technology but that’s not nearly the biggest reason. It’s more to do with society treating people as consumers first and foremost.

The new ministerial position has not been without its critics; let’s take an article from the right-wing website Spiked, mostly because it’s relevant but also because I will enjoy myself.

Sociology lecturer Ashley Frawley wrote in Spiked that it is not the government’s place or responsibility to ensure that we are happy. At first glance, this seems like it might be fair enough. Perhaps the business of government and politics should just be balancing the books and making everything run correctly.

But then, aren’t adequate mental health resources part of ‘making everything run correctly’? Part of a government’s responsibility to its citizens is to manage an adequate health service. That’s why the NHS exists in Britain and why there is controversy around its shortcomings.

It’s obviously true that some would like to see the British health service privatised. But, that’s not the angle anyone is taking in this case so you’ll forgive me if I don’t write the several thousand words required to argue against privatisation, at least not today. Same goes for the argument that the NHS is already being slowly privatised.

The criticism by Frawley seems to be based entirely on the idea that governments shouldn’t concern themselves with anything so frivolous as “emotions.” But dismissing serious mental health concerns as ‘emotions’ doesn’t make sense. This is born from and perpetuates the idea that mental health concerns don’t count as real health concerns.

It’s also worth noting, as I’ve said already, that Spiked is a far-right publication and its interests are influenced accordingly. Even if they do generally support the Conservatives, they’re sticking true to the trend of lumping in mental health issues with perceived ‘political correctness.’

Will Britain’s new ministerial position get results? That remains to be seen. Is this a political move by a Conservative party that wants the electorate to stop seeing them as the bad guys? Probably. But it’s also a serious statement that they understand Britain’s mental health problem is important and needs solutions and action. Whether this is the right course of action is unclear but for a government to take no action at all in this situation would be an error.

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