Viewpoint: A “Ministry for Loneliness” (Part I)

by Msgr. M. Francis Manion

There is a double play on the word “ministry” here. Usually, “ministry” refers to an activity on the part of the church or its people for some important work that advances the Gospel. We are all aware of the ministry of the ordained. We are also familiar with the liturgical ministry of readers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and catechists.

What I have in mind here is something else: a government ministry or department that serves the good of a nation and its people.

In one of her last administrative acts  before she retired as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (U.K.), Theresa May established a Ministry for Loneliness, with a full-fledged government Minister and department to respond to the growing incidence of loneliness in the U.K., especially among elderly people who live alone or are housebound.

My first reaction was to see this as typical of a socialist government’s tendency to invade every area of life. But as I read further, I came to see that the Ministry for Loneliness responds to an aspect of life that had become critical in Britain.

The U.K. government report that led to the foundation of the Ministry for Loneliness had concluded that over 10% of Britons suffered from severe loneliness. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Prime Minister May said. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones—people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

U.K. government research had found that over 200,000 older people per month had not had a conversation with a relative or friend for over a month.

The chief officer of “Age UK,” Britain’s largest charity working with older people, warned that loneliness can kill. “It’s proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

This problem afflicts the elderly, but also the young. An elderly nurse who was a particiant in the study said, “There are so many university students who just lock themselves away for days because they feel rejected or that they don’t fit in.” “It’s only a matter of time before loneliness turns into depression. And that’s when it gets dangerous.”

This phenomenon has not been studied to the same extent in the U.S., as far as I know. However, Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in which he argued that loneliness is a feature of the workplace (One can be lonely even when surrounded by people ). “Loneliness can be associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”

A growing body of evidence provided by a stream of books and reports indicates that loneliness is not only a problem for the elderly, but for all age groups. The internet plays a major role in this phenomenon. The more young people are connected with others through the internet, the more likely they are to become unhappy and isolated. They report a high degree of  disconnectedness and depression. The fundamental problem is that there is a lack of real one-to-one human contact, the communications that do take place are superficial, and the individual often feels left out socially.

Is there anything that churches and concerned parishioners and citizens can do to help alleviate this problem?  I think there is, and that will be the topic of my next column.

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