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Let’s have open conversations about loneliness and mental health in Parliament

Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster (Gordon Scammell / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Novelist Charles Bukowski once said “real loneliness is not necessarily limited to when you are alone”.

Peers and MPs have busy diaries, with many events to attend and no shortage of people to meet. Despite this, politics can be a lonely business. The topic of loneliness, and its impact on our mental health, has been a recurring theme for conversations in the House of Lords of late. 

Sir Charles Walker MP was in conversation with Alastair Campbell at a Lord Speaker’s lecture last summer where they discussed mental health and politics. Campbell asked: “Politics is primarily mental, yet do politicians really focus on looking after their mental health and wellbeing?” A high-pressure climate and discordant world, exacerbated by our use of social media, means that achieving this can be difficult. 

Our ever-connected world has created pockets of isolation, where people are detached from society

Charles reflected on the improved attitudes and increased awareness towards mental health that he has observed since he started as an MP in 2005. In 2012, he showed immense bravery when openly discussing his own mental health problems in a debate in the Commons. The reason I brought Charles and Alastair together on stage is because Alastair had praised Charles’ work on mental health during an episode of his podcast.

Alastair is now just as well-known for his work on mental health as his work for New Labour. His candidness on his struggles with his own mental health has inspired many people to get help. During the lecture, Alastair and Charles showed us how heavily stress and mental health issues can weigh on those in the public eye. It is a major political issue, with huge ramifications for us all.  

The problem itself is much wider. Our ever-connected world has created pockets of isolation, where people are detached from society, and social media use has modified our behaviour and our discourse. The mental health challenges, particularly for young people, are only increasing. Loneliness afflicts every age group – and in a manner which is hugely damaging.  

Given this is a global challenge, it’s important to hear from people outside the United Kingdom. That’s why I invited Dr Vivek Murthy, the United States surgeon general, to be in discussion with Baroness Kidron in the Robing Room in the Lords a few weeks ago. Baroness Kidron has campaigned tirelessly, including in the US, for children to be safe online.

During the discussion, Dr Murthy proposed that loneliness, and the deterioration of communities, should be considered a public health emergency. He said that social media had exacerbated the problem, fragmenting society and damaging the mental health of young people. If a car was found to be faulty, he argued, it would be withdrawn from the market while tests could be carried out and improvements to safety made. However, despite a sharp increase in suicide and self-harm, especially among young people, there’s no suggestion that social media platforms be taken down while necessary research is carried out.

Dr Murthy also reminded the audience of the small things that we can all do to help combat loneliness, such as reaching out to a friend we haven’t heard from in a while and simply asking how they are.  

A huge effort was made across Parliament to scrutinise the Online Safety Bill. Now an act, it is one of the first major pieces of legislation in the world which sets out to protect children from harm online. I hope that we continue to have these conversations openly, honestly, and courageously, just as Sir Charles Walker, Alastair Campbell, Dr Murthy and Baroness Kidron have done with us. 

All members and staff in Parliament can access independent and confidential support, just call the Individual Assistance Programme 0800 028 0199

Lord McFall of Alcluith is Lord Speaker

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