NEWS
04/07/2018 14:08 SAST | Updated 04/07/2018 14:09 SAST

Meet Tracey Crouch, The World's First Minister For Loneliness

Being the butt of Stephen Colbert's jokes is worth it.

Stephen Pond via Getty Images

Tracey Crouch is a woman in demand. Her email inbox is stuffed, her phone trills incessantly and her diary is packed with meetings.

Since her appointment in January as the world's first minister for loneliness, the 42-year-old British politician has been inundated with individual pleas for help and avid interest from governments around the globe.

Crouch was given her new role by Prime Minister Theresa May, following a study that found more than nine million Britons often or always feel lonely.

But she rapidly realised that the problem of social isolation was not unique to the UK, and the message sent to London was loud and clear: you are not alone when it comes to loneliness.

"The reaction was phenomenal," she told HuffPost UK. "We got back to my parliamentary office having done the morning media round and I literally found my secretary under the desk because the phone hadn't stopped ringing, the emails were going absolutely insane.

"The contact we had from people who either provide solutions for communities to stay connected, or people themselves suffering from loneliness has been extraordinary.

"I think many people thought that this was a really pioneering opportunity to bring loneliness to the forefront of the discussion about communities, about public health, about society in general. And then once it filtered through and went global, the reaction has been amazing."

Speaking in her government office just yards from Westminster's Big Ben tower, Crouch was fresh from a meeting with Norwegian and Danish ministers who want to learn from the British initiative.

"A lot of people have come to see me ... Canada, UAE, Sweden, Japan, Iceland. I cannot think of a region in the world that didn't follow this up. Germany has been massively interested. We expected Europe, but a significant number of African countries are reporting on it as well. New Zealand said 'we are watching what you do', so no pressure there then!"

PA Archive/PA Images
Tributes to Labour MP Jo Cox after she was murdered

The UK government decided to act after the publication earlier this year of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, a detailed study into the scale and extent of the problem.

Labour MP Jo Cox, who had begun the work after she personally experienced loneliness following the birth of her first child, was brutally murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016 during the UK's Brexit referendum campaign.

The commission set up in her name was intended as a lasting legacy of the power of politics to unite, rather than divide, communities.

Its key recommendations included not just the creation of a specified minister for loneliness, but also more research and evidence-based work on how to find solutions to a problem that May said was "for far too many people ... the sad reality of modern life".

Of the thousands of emails that Crouch has received since January, she says two really stuck out.

"There was one from a young lady who was in her 30s, who wrote to me to say she was a professional, she'd moved to London as part of her job, a great job, but she was incredibly lonely because she gets up, she goes to work and then when she gets back there's nothing," she said.

"All of her friends and family are elsewhere in the country and she found it very difficult to make meaningful connections in a city which, although being vibrant and diverse, if you're quite shy and don't pop up into clubs or go into a bar like at home, it's difficult.

"Another was a constituent who was an older gentleman, who said that he had been a full-time carer for his wife, who had died quite a few years ago, but felt incredibly lonely. He didn't realise it was loneliness until he started to talk about it. The announcement helped him identify that he was lonely and he wanted to know if there were any projects locally that he could get involved in.

"I think one of the things the announcement has done is it made it clear there is a thing called loneliness and we should take it seriously. And it does have a public health impact."

That impact is substantial, according to the limited research done to date. One US study suggested that the reduction in lifespan from loneliness was similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than obesity.

Former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy wrote last year that, as a doctor, "the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness". Since the 1980s in Japan, the phenomenon of old people dying alone has even had a name: kodokushi.

Another report, published this year by healthcare insurer Cigna and Ipsos MORI pollsters, found that loneliness had reached "epidemic levels" in the United States. Nearly half of those surveyed said they sometimes or always felt lonely (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).

One of the more striking findings in the Cigna study was that younger generations are more lonely than those who are middle aged, with the problem most acute among 18 to 22 year olds. Millennials, aged 23 to 37, are more lonely than baby boomers, aged 52 to 71.

DCMS
The UK's Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch

Those figures tally with new numbers from the UK's Office for National Statistics released in April, Crouch points out.

"They showed, completely contrary to what people assume, that younger people are more likely than older people to feel lonely. And although older people feature highly on the statistics scale, it's 16 to 24 year olds that are more likely to feel lonely."

One problem could be that social media isn't really that "social" after all, the minister says.

"One of the possible causes of loneliness, particularly among young people, is the advent of digital connectivity. We have one of the most digitally connected generations and yet what we are seeing is an increase in loneliness. That is a potential link.

"We have these challenges of what is real and what is virtual. And with the advent of social media, people think that they've got 200 friends on Instagram or Facebook but when they need real friends, they don't necessarily have that meaningful connection.

"A lot of work is being done on how we can build resilience within children to understand how you can have a healthy relationship with social media."

She adds: "That digital connectivity could also be a solution, connecting older people to families that may be elsewhere in the world. Having that intergenerational link, so young people are teaching old people how to use computers. But also apps, developing services connecting people like young moms in their local area."

Mush
The 'Mush' app for young parents

Crouch praises one UK app, called Mush, which allows mothers of young children to build real-life social networks. And as the very first British Conservative minister to take maternity leave while in office, she is well aware that parenting can be a lonely business.

Her son Freddie was born in 2016, at the height of the UK's referendum on membership of the European Union. "As a new mum on maternity leave while the rest of Westminster was going crazy over Brexit, you can't help but feel it," she says.

"Even when you are surrounded by an amazing partner, brilliant family and friends, when they've all gone off to work and you're suddenly left with a baby and nothing to do, it can be a bit isolating at times."

Crouch, a qualified soccer coach and keen player, is also the UK's sports minister. So it was perhaps no surprise that her answer was to get outdoors.

"I dealt with it very simply. Obviously, I'm keen on exercise and the power of exercise, and I would put Freddie in the stroller and go for a walk, go to the supermarket, talk to the checkout girl, go home and feel much better."

She stresses that her own loneliness was never "acute", whereas her work is aimed at those for whom the condition becomes "debilitating". But it's clear she believes it's important to step in to prevent things getting that far.

"It is right that people feel lonely on occasion, it's an important emotion to learn to be able to live with and to challenge. The problem is when it becomes an overwhelming emotion that is out of your control and that's the level we are looking at."

Young parents are just one group who are a focus for the work done by Crouch's team of civil servants, drawn from 10 different government departments.

"We are looking at which groups are most vulnerable, what the trigger points are, if there are any transitional points. If you take older people, bereavement might be a trigger point, becoming a full-time carer can be too," Crouch says.

She points to the pioneering work of a "bereavement club" run by the Co-Operative Funeral Care chain. "In their reception, they have leaflets about peer support groups in their local area. I think they've had two marriages from their bereavement club, which is amazing," she adds.

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University isolation is one possible 'trigger'

For the younger generation, the trigger point can be moving to a new area for work or going to university. Crouch even hints that the introduction of tuition fees is a factor that could have led to more possible isolation.

"In many respects, since my day, university life has changed quite significantly. We used to go to university for a life-enhancing experience whereas now, with tuition fees, university becomes a place where you go and you study and you leave. And so you don't necessarily make the same level of connections that we would have made.

"What's interesting is how does that stack up around the world? In America, you've always paid for your tuition, so is this a new phenomenon in the UK because of the increase in tuition fees, or is this something that happens in other countries? It's really difficult to say that would be a cause at this particular juncture without research."

As a new member of Parliament, Crouch took an early interest in the UK's Campaign To End Loneliness, which has been around for more than a decade. But she thinks the world is 10 years behind the curve and compares the battle to be heard with similar struggles to get mental health on the policy agenda.

"The main thing is recognising the issue and breaking down the stigma around it. We are really at the start of a journey that perhaps mental health was at a decade ago. Mental health charities have done a phenomenal job in breaking down the stigma around talking about it, we are only at the beginning of that with loneliness.

"We are working quite closely with a lot of mental health charities, although it's not necessarily the case that loneliness leads to a mental health condition, there may well be a link that if you don't step in at that early stage, will it have a causal effect to transferring to something greater, like depression or anxiety."

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UK Prime Minister Theresa May at a reception for the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission

The minister is candid about the scale of the task ahead of her. "I acknowledge the enormous privilege it is to be the world's first loneliness minister and to be really pioneering policy on this, and thinking about a lot of strategic things across the whole of government, local authorities, community organisations.

"At the same time, I feel enormously overwhelmed by the challenge. Because there are so many different issues involved. There isn't one problem and therefore there isn't one solution.

"And it's subjective. It can be caused by a very personal incident at a particular time in somebody's life that perhaps at any other time it may not have occurred. You can't identify people who are lonely.

"You cannot assume somebody who is living alone is lonely, in the same way that you can't assume somebody who is married with three children isn't. And that's one of the hardest challenges that we face. We are working with a lot of partners to try and help in that identification process."

One of the causes of the loneliness epidemic is demographic, with young men and women delaying having children until much later than their parents and grandparents. The traditional route of leaving home to go straight to marriage is a rarity, and "singletons" are on the rise. The EU has its highest ever number of single-person households.

Crouch, who will sketch out her first answers to the problems in a new strategy to be published this autumn, hints that one solution would be to change the physical make-up of our town and cities.

"Have we accidentally built in loneliness into communities? Through architecture, by building lots of gated communities to support single households, the fact that you need a keypad to get through the front door or you don't know who's in the apartment next to you, or there are no communal areas, have we inadvertently created problems?"

She's looking at research work in Vancouver on "the built environment", but the US also has a history that others could learn from, she says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman via Getty Images
A 'chair yoga' session for residents of John Knox retirement village in Pompano Beach, Florida.

"If you look at Florida, the well-known retirement state, you see from a UK perspective a very healthy, happy retirement state that has facilities to cater to their needs and desires. Is that something we should be thinking about here? Building more retirement villages?"

To counter the possible isolation faced by those living on their own and new to an area, apartment buildings with more communal kitchens and lounges are being trialled in the US and other countries.

"I was reading something recently about which parts of the day are most depressing for those who are living alone and presenting with loneliness issues and it's actually dinner," Crouch says.

"That eating time when you are cooking by yourself and eating it on your knee watching the TV, because that's more soul-enhancing than sitting at the table by yourself, which can be quite soul destroying – that is a really challenging point in somebody's day.

"The other thing is that we quite often think of Christmas as a trigger point for people around loneliness, so rightly there are campaigns to make sure you check on your neighbours, knock on the door on Christmas Day and that's all fantastic.

"But actually summer barbecue season is more likely to bring out feelings of loneliness, because you will walk past a park and see groups of friends having a picnic, or you can hear your neighbours four houses down having a good jolly time over a barbecue, and that's when you're kind of in a real experience of loneliness."

Not all the visitors to Crouch's office are government ministers. American actress Goldie Hawn recently dropped by as part of her own work on helping young people cope with stress and anxiety.

"She's amazing. We discussed how, starting at a young age with children, they can develop ways to deal with stress and anxiety, coping mechanisms, breathing mechanisms."

And Hawn, now aged 72, is just one senior citizen who is helping youngsters build up the resilience they need to combat periods of loneliness. Crouch has been particularly impressed by "inter-generational" care homes for the elderly that include children's kindergartens.

"It's good for older people having youngsters around keeping them on their toes and their innocence and lack of prejudice, it's really good. But it's also healthy for the younger generation to have that grandparent or great-grandparent figure to be supporting them.

"That's two extremes, but we are seeing the benefits in other ages. People like early retirees volunteering to read in primary schools, or helping in secondary schools with some of the pastoral care. So we are seeing a bit more of that and I'd love to see more of it."

Nursery and early-years care is one area where the UK government's critics have pointed out that all of the worthy work on combatting loneliness among young parents contrasts with cuts to funding of public services.

SureStart children's centres, first set up by Tony Blair's Labour government to offer free, Scandinavian-style support, have been closed or downsized across the country. Critics claim that young mothers have been left more isolated as a result.

Although political opponents have united on the loneliness agenda, some of the left think the Conservative government has undermined the fabric of public services that are needed to help community cohesion. The left say rampant global capitalism has long promoted "atomisation" rather than togetherness. The right say society is not the same as the state.

John Stillwell - PA Images via Getty Images
Tony Blair launches the first SureStart Children's Centre in London the 1990s

Crouch is candid about the problems, and suggests one answer is to create "impact assessments" for future public policy changes to gauge the possible effect on loneliness.

"There is a recognition that there might have been unintended consequences of some decisions that have been made," she says.

"And actually, one of the things I'm looking at is whether or not we can start to use loneliness as a means of assessing policy before it is implemented. We already do that with gender and disability and other factors. So should we start to think about 'how does this policy impact on isolation?'

"On transport, for example, we are bringing expertise around rural transport. If you axe a bus service, you do it for the right intentions but could it have an impact on isolation?

"It may be that there is a recognition, it would have an impact, it doesn't mean it won't go ahead but at least we've acknowledged that it could have that impact.

"I'm a realist about the politics of these things. But the other thing I will say is that loneliness didn't begin in 2010 [when David Cameron first became prime minister].

"One of the challenges that we face is how do we prevent it from happening in the future, starting from this position. We know it's been a phenomenon for some time, but it's only now that we've started to talk about it. What do we do for the next 25 years to stop it?

"The other thing that I'm realistic about is that I won't be the minister who takes all the glory for successfully meeting the outcomes that we will set out in the strategy, because this is something that is going to take decades to help solve."

As for the specifics of the SureStart programme, Crouch says that while it is an"important" means of support, policy has to evolve, too.

"I am a fan of some of the SureStart centres in my constituency and I think I've seen SureStart cuts in my own patch. Actually, in the way that things were being run, it was right to review those particular centres, but in others they have been quite successful. So I think it's about taking a sensible approach to SureStart. But I also think there are other ways of connecting mums together.

"The one thing I would say about loneliness is that, a bit like mental health, it isn't prejudiced to people's circumstances. Obviously, SureStart was designed very much to support low-income and deprived communities, [but] loneliness isn't necessarily more prevalent in those communities than in more affluent areas.

"So, the one thing I have learned in the six months I've been doing this, is it is too simplistic to look at it in that way, there are many shades of grey."

MensSheds
Woodworking at a MensShed project

In the past month, Crouch has managed to put some money where the government's mouth is, creating a £20-million fund to help provide concrete cash to support anti-loneliness initiatives launched by charities, community groups and others.

She's a particular fan of MenSheds, a community group that gives men the chance to meet up and continue or resume hobbies like woodworking. Other projects include a Radio Club in Birmingham, a weekly show that allows senior citizens to host "phone-ins" to connect with people living on their own.

"Central government is not going to solve this alone. It is just one part of the picture. Ultimately, local authorities, businesses and charitable organisations have a role to play," she adds.

Crouch is keen to praise projects run by private-sector companies. The Costa Coffee chain has something called the Chatty Café, where they set aside a table in 250 of their stores at a particular time on a day of the week and people can go and sit there, not necessarily know anyone and have a chat with whoever turns up.

The Marks & Spencer retail store do something similar with their Frazzle Café, an idea that stemmed from a programme drafted by Ruby Wax, the US comedy actress who has long championed better mental health provision.

Businesses also need to look at not just individual projects but also their staff, Crouch says.

"With business, it's brilliant how many are involved in organisations helping to combat loneliness but the thing they absolutely need to do is look out for the welfare of their own employees.

"What I would really like to see within their employee wellbeing surveys are questions around loneliness. The Co-op, for example, are fantastic in terms of measuring loneliness among their staff. I'd like to see that as a matter of course."

What hasn't deterred Crouch is the complaint from some that a minister for loneliness sounds like one of the saddest titles for anyone in public life. From the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" ("all the lonely people, where do they all come from?") to Morrissey's "Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness", doesn't her job just conjure up images of British melancholy?

"What I find is that it does have that connotation of a negative aspect to it. Last week, I met the UAE's minister for happiness and wellbeing. I think I'd much prefer to be the minister for happiness and wellbeing, because ultimately that's what I'm trying to achieve," she says.

PA Wire/PA Images
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron

"But you will remember that when David Cameron and the coalition government came in [in 2010], they had a Happiness Index and the Fourth Estate [the news media] ripped it to shreds.

"So, despite the fact that I think a minister for happiness is ultimately what I should be called, I don't think it would have been as well received as a minister for loneliness has been. Because what we've done is, we've identified loneliness as a condition and we've had that global interest. They're saying 'we have loneliness, we need to understand what they are doing in the UK'."

It's not just the melancholy, but the very idea of a minister having any role at all that has been mocked by some. As others joked about Harry Potter-style ministries of magic, US late-night TV host Stephen Colbert riffed at length on what he saw as a "very British", bureaucratic answer to a societal problem.

"How is it supposed to work?" Colbert asked his audience, before affecting an upper-class English accent.

"The ministry has reviewed your application and you're not lonely enough, I'm afraid. Your application for affection has been denied."

Crouch was unfazed. "First of all I tutted, but the fact that he was talking about it meant that it was on the agenda. And actually if you look at the whole thing, it started off as a bit of a mickey-take, by the end of it he recognised that this was an important thing to be talking about.

"Every part of me wanted to be outraged to start off with, in a truly kind of British 'don't mock what we are doing' kind of way. But ultimately, I think he put loneliness on to an agenda that hadn't necessarily reached that particular audience before.

"So, I'm grateful to have been the butt of a joke if it means that legislators, those who have controls over public health, start to talk about the issue."

And she counters that the jokes will be worth it if the US can get its own act together and think about its public health response to the "epidemic" on its doorstep.

"We genuinely think that the US is in exactly the same place. The way the states are built, you have vast populations around major cities which are incredibly diverse, but also quite disconnected.

"And then you have very large expanses of rural areas, which are also quite disconnected. If somebody was to start doing this at a federal level in the States, I think they would find it quite enormous. It's a public health issue. I can't think of any other state-level department other than health that this would be most relevant to."

Over to you, Mr President.