Our new Head of Evidence, Dr Helen MacIntyre has joined us recently. We asked her to share her thoughts on joining the world of the Campaign to End Loneliness!

I am six weeks into my exciting new job as Head of Evidence at the Campaign to End Loneliness

I am really pleased to take this opportunity to introduce myself to all of you: the diverse group of individuals, practitioners, policy makers and researchers who engage with the work of the Campaign and are concerned with tackling loneliness.

I’ve been lucky to have been welcomed into the role by my friendly, dedicated team of three others: Robin Hewings, Mhairi Grant and Jenny Manchester, as well as the wider What Works Centre for Wellbeing Team. And at this point I am beginning to feel more familiar with the various strands involved in our very collaborative work.

Some things have felt very familiar. Until the end of March, I was working for Ageing Better in Camden (ABC) as Research and Learning lead. It was great to arrive at the Campaign and at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing and find recognition for the Warm Welcome approach developed and
promoted by the ABC team. This provides concrete strategies to help make community activities for older people welcoming and so to encourage social connection and a sense of belonging. But the Campaign’s Promising Approaches publications also chimes with ABC learning that individual experience of chronic loneliness often results from a complex set of causes which are not easy to solve. This was underlined again when I joined my first monthly Social Connectedness working group meeting and heard presentations from Kate Jopling and Jade Yap (research on Loneliness carried out by the Mental Health Foundation) and Natalie Wotherspoon (research on factors impacting the lived experience of individuals with Chronic Fatigues Syndrome and their experience of Loneliness). Among interviewees, physical limitations and mental health difficulties, loss of significant relationships, negative social attitudes to these kinds of difficulties were all intertwined with loneliness.

Some things have made me think again. In particular, I’ve been thinking about loneliness among children and young people. I recently completed my PhD with a focus on the importance of informal school contexts – specifically school mealtimes – for children’s peer relationships and social development. Dr Emily Long from Glasgow University and colleagues have been working with the What Works Centre for Wellbeing and the Campaign to address gaps in our understanding of young peoples’ loneliness. The Campaign has also been carrying out analysis of ONS loneliness data over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic showing that 16 to 24-year-olds were significantly more likely to report being lonely than those aged 70+. During my mealtime research, I looked at children’s social networks and relationships: I’m now wondering which of those children might also have been lonely. I was already thinking about what schools might do to include children on the outside of friendship networks; they might also need to think additionally about how to address loneliness.

Some things feel completely new. My main piece of work so far has been to organise two Research and Policy Forum sessions on Loneliness and the Built Environment. The first will be this week. Preparations have involved a dive into a new set of research and practitioner literature which focuses on the connection. For example, The Loneliness Lab (2020) report ‘Using Design to Connect Us’ highlights many ways design can encourage us to interact. We expect the forums to generate some interesting thinking about building a better evidence base in this area and about practical ways to bring about changes to our neighbourhoods which can help to alleviate loneliness. I’m excited to see how that conversation and work develops.

All in all, in a short period of time my mind has been full of the many factors to be taken account of in addressing loneliness in varied groups of people. I’m looking forward to future discussions and collaborations with you to help increase our understanding of this problem and to develop solutions.