By Julie Cameron

WE all know what it’s like to feel lonely; it’s a normal part of life. However, severe or long-term loneliness can impact our mental and physical health, which has implications not just for individuals but also wider society.

Loneliness is a public health issue and we need to take it seriously. It can lead to mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Our new research published for Mental Health Awareness Week shows that 78 per cent of adults in Scotland have experienced loneliness over the last year, with more than a quarter saying they felt lonely some or all of the time over the past month. Almost one-third (31%) said that feelings of loneliness had a negative impact on their mental health

So, what can be done? There are things we can do as individuals and communities to help people experiencing loneliness. For example, ensuring groups we are part of are welcoming to others and finding people nearby or online who share our interests – people who "get us".

However, if we are to really make a difference in overcoming the high rates of loneliness across Scotland, we must think bigger. We need Scottish Government and our newly-elected councils to invest more in our communities to ensure that people have access to quality community centres and green spaces where there are opportunities to connect. More than one-third of adults in Scotland told us they don’t think there are enough opportunities in their community to connect socially with others in a meaningful way such as through clubs, groups, libraries or youth centres. Almost half (46%) thought it likely that the council or local authority spending less money on their local area contributes to feelings of loneliness.

We know that investing in our communities will make a big difference in tackling loneliness and helping to prevent poor mental health. As well as ensuring our communities are equipped with the resources they need for people to easily engage with others, we must remove barriers to coming together and making social connections, and we must better inform our communities about what is available. This should include local authorities investing more in community-based groups and spaces to increase opportunities for people to connect, particularly those at higher risk of loneliness such as young adults, LGBTQ+ people, those who are living with long-term physical or mental health conditions, and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Nationally, the Scottish Government must also ensure that implementation of its A Connected Scotland loneliness strategy includes consideration of the mental health impact of loneliness, particularly for the groups of people who are more at risk of being lonely. We’d want to see additional investment for a new five-year social isolation and loneliness plan to deliver targeted support where it is most needed, with additional funding streams and actions to address the mental health problems which can arise as a consequence of loneliness.

We must take loneliness seriously and address it as the public mental health issue it is.

Julie Cameron is Associate Director, Mental Health Foundation