Next Wednesday, Bell Media will host its annual Let’s Talk Day, which sees the Canadian communications giant putting a renewed focus on mental health and encouraging all of us to share our own experiences with anxiety, depression and similar conditions.
However, it’s the British government that may have made the biggest move in terms of this discussion, as British Prime Minister Theresa May has just appointed the country’s – and possibly the world’s – first-ever Minister of Loneliness.
May’s move followed the release of the Jo Cox Report on Loneliness, named for a late Labour MP who was murdered shortly before the mid-2016 European Union referendum. A mother of two in her early 40s at the time, Cox placed a special emphasis on reaching out to the lonely and isolated within her own constituency, spurred in part by her own fish-out-of-water feelings during her university years.
The two fellow MPs who co-chaired the report in Cox’s memory have discovered an epidemic of loneliness among Britons, with a whopping nine million of them classing themselves as lonely. The study suggests that the breakdown of relationships within several traditional facets of British society – including trade unions, churches, local pubs, and the workplace – has led to a potentially-lethal “crisis of loneliness.”
According to Mark Robinson, the head of Britain’s largest charity for the elderly, Age UK, loneliness has “proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” A former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, suggested last year that loneliness in the workplace needs our attention, partly since it can be associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety.
I’ll admit that I was originally caught off guard by Prime Minister May’s decision to award “loneliness” as a cabinet responsibility to Tracey Crouch, Britain’s Undersecretary for Sport and Civil Society in the country’s Culture Ministry.
Part of my surprise came from my long-time characterization of “loneliness” as a purely emotional response, as opposed to the seemingly-similar concept of being alone, which doesn’t necessarily result in negative consequences and can often be a positive, stress-relieving position.
But the more I studied the work of Jo Cox and the report launched in her name, the more it made sense to have a cabinet minister overlooking this condition, especially since we know “loneliness” by a different name in this neck of the woods: Isolation.
Now, it’s not just geographical isolation, although I have certainly seen that take root. I have had friends and relatives living in some of the most beautiful communities the Strait area and Cape Breton in general have to offer, only to experience intense sadness and loneliness at living so far off the beaten path, particularly when the harsher winter weather kicks in.
I too have experienced the two-sided coin of isolation and loneliness. My first decade of public school was spent in my native L’Ardoise, with the final three years in St. Peter’s. I saw very little of the rest of Richmond County at that time – a far cry from the current experience of Richmond Academy staff and students.
Similarly, like Jo Cox, I remember feeling intense loneliness even while surrounded by hundreds of fellow students during my university years. I’ve even experienced it during my 12 years of working at The Reporter, and my five years at CIGO AM Radio. It certainly wasn’t anybody’s fault that I occasionally felt that way, but it can swell up and swallow us before we even realize what’s going on.
So, with all of this in mind, I’m pleased to be participating in a project designed to break up loneliness and isolation among our over-55 population. Over the past four months, I have been the facilitator for the theatre portion of a project co-sponsored by the Dr. Kingston Memorial Health Care Project and the Coastal Arts Guild, which also includes a seniors’ photography exhibit and a “zine” addressing seniors’ issues.
The participants hail from across Richmond County – my current theatrical crew includes two folks from Arichat, two more from Hureauville, two from the St. George’s Channel area, and one each from Louisdale and St. Peter’s. Some have lived here all their lives, while others have bounced around between regions as diverse as Creignish, Halifax and Ontario.
We’re tackling several themes – in serious, comic and musical fashions – when we hit the L’Ardoise Community Centre on March 8 for our first of five planned shows around the county, we will have a few segments of the “Senior Moments” production dealing with loneliness and isolation.
After all, we can’t wait for a day on the calendar or the release of a report to break down these barriers, since they’re not even close to being “isolated incidents.”