Belfast Telegraph

Rise in social isolation in Northern Ireland due to 'breakdown of community spirit'

By Victoria Leonard

Northern Ireland is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic, with a quarter of people admitting that they don't even know their neighbours' names.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of people admit to feeling lonely, a report found.

Experts say many people go one week to the next without speaking to someone else and claim it points to a breakdown in traditional community spirits.

The Rotary Club's State of the Nation survey questioned people aged 16 to 59 on social and community issues.

It found that the highest percentage of people feeling isolated were in the 16 to 29 age group (71.5%), followed by 62.7% of those aged 30 to 44 - ending the myth that loneliness only affects the elderly.

Further analysis shows that, while nearly half of people (48.6%) see their families on a weekly basis, a small number (2.9%) never see their relatives.

And while a third (34.3%) of people see their friends on a monthly basis, almost 6% admit to never seeing them.

Shockingly, the survey found 25.7% don't know the names of neighbours.

Nearly six in 10 also believe their standard of living is worse than their parents' generation.

The majority appear to be disillusioned with life, with just a quarter saying life has "turned out the way they wanted it to" and they "couldn't ask for more".

In contrast, nearly 43% said their life hadn't turned out as they wanted, saying they "had hoped for more" and just over 31% wishing "life was easier".

The report found the main causes of anxiety for people in Northern Ireland were mental health (60%), poverty (57%), health problems (54%) and opportunities for young people (51%). Worryingly, 92% of people confessed to feeling bogged down by the stresses and strains of modern life, while 42% thought it was harder than ever to manage finances, get on the property ladder (40%) or maintain a job for life (40%).

Heather Dougherty (58) is the manager of east Belfast organisation Imago Professional Befriending Service, which provides support to people aged 18-65. She said the figures were "not a shock at all".

"There are a lot of people who don't speak to another soul from one week to the next," she stated.

"We provide support for people of all ages who have been referred to us through professional services such as GPs and are experiencing isolation, stress, low mood, depression and anxiety.

"I think it's down to a breakdown in community spirit. Everyone in society is busy, people are moving away from where their families live and no one thinks about popping in to see people.

"I would regularly come across people of all ages who say that our organisation is the only time they get to speak to another person in the week.

"It's hard for young people to come forward to help and one of the big things for them is finding a job.

"If someone is struggling with mental health issues or anxiety, I would ask people to encourage them to get help.

"It's about knowing your neighbours next door and keeping an eye out for them."

Stephen Cruise is chief executive of Oasis Caring in Action, which includes the Imago service and the Recall telephone befriending scheme.

He agreed he was "not surprised" to hear of the rise of social isolation here.

"People of all ages and backgrounds come to us for help," he said.

"One person was visited on Christmas Day and they said they hadn't seen their family at Christmas for over a decade."

Cindy O'Shea, who is volunteer and regional director for Samaritans in Ireland, said loneliness was a "huge" and "hidden" problem.

"Perhaps a young person has moved to a new area for work or college and doesn't have friends or a family network," she said.

"At the other end of the age spectrum, we get calls from older people living alone who haven't seen or spoken to anyone for a week.

"They ring us just to hear a human voice."

Amanda Watkin of Rotary International, which carried out the poll, said the organisation was "dedicated to focusing on projects within our local community to help improve the quality of life for those nearby and identify key areas where we can really make a difference."

Belfast Telegraph

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