Last month, Japan appointed its own ‘Minister of Loneliness’. However, they’ve already had three in the UK, and we almost had our own in 2018. 

 

 

Last week, Japanese politician Tetsushi Sakamoto (who was already tasked with fixing the country’s low birth rate) became Japan’s first Minister of Loneliness and has promised to quickly be a friend to everyone. Sakamoto-san has announced plans for an emergency forum on the issue, and will purportedly hear the testimonies of lonely people.

The above may seem very Japanese, but the loneliness problem is inherently Japanese. As Big Think noted, there are two words in the Japanese lexicon that even define the problem: “Hikikomori, often translated as ‘acute social withdrawal,’ is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many countries, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at risk of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and distress. Kodokushi, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.”

However, the Japanese are not pioneers in this regard, as the United Kingdom appointed their first minister of this kind in 2018. British lawmakers created the post in the wake of a report that discovered nine million of the country’s 67 million people feel lonely some or all of the time. Ironically, it’s an unstable post, as there have been three loneliness ministers in the years since, with Baroness Diana Barran the latest to take up the challenge.

Under Mims Davies, Britain’s second Minister of Loneliness,126 U.K. programs were announced, and per MarketWatch, “included new transportation lines for those at the highest risk of isolation, digital solutions for connecting older Brits to one another and one-to-one support for LGBTQ people dealing with loneliness. One example is a project by charity S4ALL in Stainforth (a town about 200 miles north of London) that was rewarded £36,610 to train younger people to work with older people on digital technology skills.”

In 2018, Fiona Patten MP raised the possibility of a local loneliness minister, suggesting that a dedicated representative would elevate the issue and help reduce stigma, as well as ensuring policymakers remain attuned to the impact of loneliness.

“While I have been in parliament, the notion of social isolation and the issue of social isolation has been raised in a number of areas, whether that was talking about in some cases even as extreme as talking about (the) end of life choices through to looking at retirement housing, through to looking at even juvenile justice, where people have no community connection and this leads to negative outcomes,” she said.

As Michelle H. Lim of Swinburne University put it, “While it may seem unusual to some to have the government take a role in improving our social connections, it makes sense when you consider the negative impact of loneliness not only on the individual but also the wider community. But with increasing investment from the government, how do we ensure programs intended to address loneliness are well-targeted and successful?”

 

In 2018, Fiona Patten MP raised the possibility of a local loneliness minister, suggesting that a dedicated representative would elevate the issue and help reduce stigma, as well as ensuring policymakers remain attuned to the impact of loneliness.

 

“Reducing loneliness has obvious health benefits. But the solution isn’t as simple as connecting lonely people with other people; rather, it involves the establishment of meaningful connections. Many social initiatives rely heavily on connecting lonely people with strangers and a rotating cast of volunteers.

“Most of these programs designed to address loneliness are being implemented without testing their effectiveness. The following should be considered when addressing loneliness.

“First, loneliness provides a signal for us to seek out others. The aim should be to reduce distressing levels of loneliness, rather than getting rid of loneliness per se. And we should be mindful of risk factors that are less amenable to change, such as genetics, which can make people more predisposed to feeling lonely.

“Second, loneliness can be transmitted from person to person. Research shows loneliness can be passed on up to three degrees of separation from the lonely individual. Exactly how this occurs is yet to be fully understood – we have yet to explain whether loneliness is relayed via negative thoughts, behaviours, or feelings within relationships. Not understanding the transmission process may lead some to experience loneliness after interacting with the lonely.

“Third, unhelpful thoughts and negative beliefs about others and the social world are thought to underpin lonelinessResearchers have found programs that provide social opportunities as well as helping the lonely person learn how to interact better with others are the most useful.

“Last, the predictors of loneliness differ depending on demographics. We know, for instance, there are two risk periods for loneliness: in adolescents and young people under 25, and adults over the age of 65. How we tackle loneliness should vary for both groups. For example, an older adult may need grief counselling from a bereavement, whereas a younger person may need help coping with social anxiety.

“A public health campaign in Australia could play a large role in destigmatising loneliness and addressing its health implications. A successful campaign could recast misconceptions of loneliness as a sign of vulnerability, fragility, or weakness, occurring only in people who are physically isolated or old.”

 

 

 

 

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