Tuesday 25 May 2010


Wheezing along at 8.5 kph in the gym (will I ever do an 8 minute mile again?) I see Simon Lawton-Smith of the Mental Health Foundation on the telly introducing their report The Lonely Society . I’ve now taken a look over a first cup of tea and the report, based on a useful survey, offers some measured, practical recommendations not I'm pleased to say including establishing a National Loneliness Board. I’ll let you read their ideas for yourself (follow the link above) but a lot of the suggestions depend less on the state and more on what we are now invited to call the “Big Society” – the new UK government’s vision of encouraging the community at large to acknowledge and reclaim its responsibility to look after one another. Well, I wasn’t born yesterday so if the Big Society idea proves to be a smokescreen for cutting statutory-commissioned social care we must be ready to cry foul. However, there surely is some truth in the notion that we have too much grown to expect the state to take care of the needy: in reality neighbourliness, family loyalty, and spontaneous voluntary action offer the best hope of dealing with problems like loneliness, supported by state services especially where people have a special vulnerability such as those with a serious mental illness. Loneliness can certainly affect mental health but equally serious mental illness routinely results in desperate loneliness. We are rightly concerned to provide good services to people in the initial crisis of first episode psychosis, when they relapse, or when an evident risk arises. But a vast number of people with serious mental illness are receiving scant and desultory services because they are not “in crisis” (that is causing a problem to anybody else). This goes back to my point about routine CMHT services (see here): since I wrote this I’ve spoken to several NHS and Social Services managers who acknowledge that a key motivation in developing specialist teams is to avoid placing new or demanding clients in the hands of CMHTs where they do not believe progress can be made. But what about all those people with a serious mental illness who don’t make trouble but are struggling with inactivity and loneliness? I will come back to this.

Meanwhile back at the gym I lay in the Jacuzzi and pondered that loneliness is surely a product of the diaspora of families and communities – so many of us live miles from our parents and siblings and those we grew up with. I remember in the Sixties the very old men sitting on a bench in the cross-roads of the village where I grew up (and of course left): they had presumably grown up together, fought together (perhaps to relieve Mafeking for Queen Victoria and later on the Somme), toiled together in the fields, and have now died and lie together in the churchyard. Of course they may not have liked each other for I all know but loneliness was probably not an issue. I recollect seeing one of those archaeology programmes (not Baldrick’s Time Team but the one with a bearded chap with a Landrover who every week recreated a face from a crumbly old skull) where they dug up an ancient Briton in a village then took DNA samples from locals and found one man who was definitely a direct descendant – far from feeling foolish that his family since prehistory had resisted all temptation to move even a mile up the road he looked rather pleased with himself and was clearly very jolly, no doubt surrounded by childhood friends and extended family. . .