Chris Ruane: We must act to combat loneliness in the armed forces

Posted On: 
24th June 2019

The unique pressures of life in the armed forces can increase vulnerability to loneliness and social isolation. Prevention and intervention is needed, says Chris Ruane

A 2018 study found that 50% of respondents found leaving the armed forces gave them feelings of isolation or loneliness.
PA Images

One in four members of the armed forces community (AFC) feel lonely or socially isolated “always” and “often”, according to research conducted by the Royal British Legion. The 2018 study, which looked at the views of serving personnel, veterans and their families, also found that 50% of respondents confirmed leaving the armed forces gave them feelings of isolation or loneliness, and overall 70% of those asked agreed that social isolation and loneliness are a problem in the AFC.

Loneliness is not a trivial problem and can affect us all. This month, joint research from Sainsbury’s, the National Centre for Social Research, and Oxford Economics has revealed that half of Britons socialise with friends or family just once per month, with nearly one in 10 never meeting socially at all. More broadly, the responses of the 8,000 people surveyed generate an average “wellbeing score” of 60.4 out of 100 in this year’s index – down 0.38 on the previous year.

For many of our citizens, the UK is increasingly a socially atomised, isolating place to live. That has an impact on health. Not only does social isolation adversely affect mental health outcomes, it manifests itself physically too. Meta-analysis of medical research, for example, shows that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity. One study, defining social isolation as those unmarried, with six or fewer friends and no organisation memberships, found that – staggeringly – socially isolated men have a 90% increased risk of cardiovascular death, and more than double the risk of death from accident or suicide.

'Loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity'

On this evidence, the growing loneliness crisis must be at the forefront of the minds of elected officials and public servants. The challenge is stark, especially given the uneven distribution of loneliness across different demographics. And one such demographic which is frequently overlooked is the AFC.

That social isolation and loneliness will affect the AFC more than the wider population should not be surprising, given that so many general risk factors are inherent in armed forces life. Serving members of the armed forces are more likely to spend extended periods of time away from family and friends, more likely to move to a new area, and more likely to suffer bereavement than their civilian counterparts. In addition, the transition from serving to Civvy Street is renowned for being a difficult life event.

Added to that, data given to me by the Department for Work and Pensions indicates that individuals with long-term sickness or disability are significantly more likely to suffer from low wellbeing; something which is sure to disproportionately affect the AFC.

In response to a parliamentary question I tabled to the MoD, I was pleased to hear that the ministry has worked with the Royal British Legion on the recommendations in their report which, in part, will shape the government’s new strategy for veterans.

I am likewise reassured by the concrete changes which have already been instigated, including the development of a new transition policy to prepare service leavers, the work on developing resilience, and on identifying those who may need additional assistance.

While developments like this, along with the establishment of a minister for loneliness, are welcome, it is imperative that we do not fall into the trap of responding to loneliness reactively. A minister for human flourishing at the head of a wide-ranging, cross-governmental approach would redefine the issue. Instead of stamping out fires when they arise, the state should be empowered to work to improve the wellbeing of its people in a proactive manner.

Other countries are showing us the way in this regard. New Zealand’s first wellbeing budget shows a move away from growth as the prime indicator of the country’s economy. Closer to home, the Welsh Assembly’s Well-being of Future Generations Act is attracting worldwide interest for its commitment to placing people and communities at the heart of government decision-making.

Since 2011, the Office for National Statistics has been measuring our national wellbeing in a systematic, comprehensive manner. Now is the time for our political system to put this wealth of data to practical use and radically rethink the way policies are formulated, by placing the wellbeing of all – citizens and those serving in our armed forces – at the heart of public policy.

Chris Ruane is Labour MP for Vale of Clwyd and co-chair of the APPG on Mindfulness, and the APPG on Wellbeing Economics