Overcoming Loneliness in London

One wouldn’t imagine a city that is home to 9 million Londoners, a lively, bustling place, could be characterised by its widespread acute loneliness, something that is already being described as a growing epidemic. Practically speaking, there are several factors that attribute to this era of loneliness: an ageing population with people who are living longer, people outliving their partners, smaller households where people become single after a relationship breakdown or lone parents on their own after their children have flown the coop, etc. Whatever the case, studies have shown that when starved of social relationships, there is a negative impact on health that “rival[s] the effect of…cigarette smoking, blood pressure [and] obesity.” Quite literally, as social creatures, we can grow ill and die from lack of contact.

Along with loneliness, social inequality is a significant but often overlooked determinant of the increasing disparity in health both in the UK and beyond. A recent UN study has shown that worsening mental health is explicitly linked to austerity. At Supply Yoga, where we work on improving the quality of life of Londoners, it is impossible to ignore the effects of poverty and inequality on health and wellbeing. In England, those living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket are more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest. It is estimated that 2 million people experience poor mental health yearly in London — an already highly unequal city with relatively affluent areas neighbouring areas of deprivation. In the two gentrifying London boroughs in which we live and work, Hackney is ranked second of most deprived boroughs after Tower Hamlets, where their older residents are predicted to be the loneliest in all of England.

Supply Yoga is an avid champion for accessibility to health and wellbeing practices for everyone regardless of orientation, ability, background, health and wealth.

We have provided more than 300 unique non-clinical therapeutic interventions for some of the city’s most hard-to-reach populations who tend to be underrepresented and socially isolated. Connecting with our service users would not be possible without the positive relationships we have fostered with a broad range of partners. They are part of a rich tapestry of 17+ charities, third sector and grassroots community organisations that already support communities living with low social capital, low confidence and long term mental and physical health challenges. The 400+ service users we have worked with have been generally adults at risk which include those with learning or physical disabilities, mental health needs, who misuse substances such as drugs or alcohol, or are physically unwell. They may also be at risk of homelessness, uncertain immigration status, low language level, low self-esteem, gender-based violence, etc. While the challenges they face are diverse, the underlying thread of commonality that connects all of them is social isolation as a result of stigma and ill health.

East London Cares, with whom we forged a new partnership at the beginning of 2020, is an extraordinary example of a forward-thinking organisation that shares Supply’s objective of creating time and space for isolated individuals to come together. East London Cares “seeks to address the modern blight of disconnection in our connected age” by connecting older and younger neighbours to share new experiences and friendship. Social togetherness has the capacity to bridge gaps across social, generational and cultural divides and improve our confidence, sense of connection, belonging and purpose so that everyone feels part of this city.

Supply is an evolving model for whole community health that challenges the notion that poor health is an individual problem

In collaboration with progressive organisations like East London Cares, Supply has witnessed first-hand how the provision of non-clinical therapeutic support can help prevent and manage chronic ill health issues. Traditionally, the approach to mental health and wellbeing has been the focus towards behavioural change and biomedicine as a means of supporting recovery. At Supply we are addressing the social issues that can be the root causes of poor mental health, focusing on accessibility and prevention rather than treatment.

We have experienced first-hand in our work how wellness interventions such as yoga and meditation can reduce the symptoms that accompany ill health, isolation and stigma. Additionally, there is evidence that yoga as a therapeutic modality can positively affect physiological and psychological wellbeing, counter the effects of involuntary stress responses and restore balance in the nervous system. Yoga, mindful movement and meditation practices can address people’s needs in a holistic way, empower them to take greater control of their health, and enable them to live happier, healthier lives. Doing so in a safe group setting can also combat isolation by bringing people together to have a shared social experience. Furthermore, by working with our local partners, we also create better accessibility to wellness practices which can support individuals in marginalised communities to manage their lives well.

Undoubtedly, austerity and welfare measures in the UK from the past decade have resulted in substantial reductions in public spending putting tremendous pressure on our nation’s health and social care services, some of whom are our partners. This has hindered access to wellbeing support, which has hit the poorest the hardest, many of whom are the service users we work with.

More than ever, there needs to be a broad coalition of social enterprises like us, public services and community service organisations like East London Cares to band together to challenge traditional approaches to mental health and create grassroots solidarity for change in mental health systems, while addressing social inequalities and promoting the right to self-empowerment and ownership over health, especially for those at the socio-economic fringes who are experiencing the feeling of being priced out and therefore, left out in a rapidly changing city.

By adopting a social approach to health and wellbeing in the city of London, it is vital that we not only fully embed ourselves within the community but also the valuable network of organisations who are driven by the fundamental activism that changes many lives for the better. As an advocate for access to wellness for all, Supply is an evolving model for whole community health that challenges the notion that poor health is an individual problem isolated from a broader social context. Social inclusion, community cohesion and access to care and support must be at the heart of our city’s wellbeing.

Ni Hsieh, 2020 - follow her here and here