With apologies for the unsubtle metaphor (for which you can blame mother nature!) - we arrived in Bristol, for the first of our shared learning series with the British Red Cross and Co-op partnership on tackling loneliness, in deep fog. We left in glorious sunshine.
The event featured a wide range of organisations that work to tackle loneliness by connecting people back to their communities. Along with upcoming events in London and Glasgow, it aimed to draw upon the learning emerging from the Red Cross's own work to establish almost 40 new 'Community Connector' schemes across the UK, and to share this with other similar schemes working in different areas and with different communities.
Community Connector schemes are one-to-one services that involve a connector (or link worker, or navigator, or social prescriber) meeting with an individual to discuss their personal circumstances, needs and wishes - including for social connections and relationships. They then work with the individual over a period of time to help them (re)establish links with their wider communities.
So what did we learn from this first event, which helped transform fog into dazzling sunlight?
Finding appropriate support is difficult. These 'connecting' services rely on the existence of a range of resources in the wider community – from formal support services, to befriending programmes, to transport services, to loose associations of people meeting to pursue their interests. So what happens when they are not there? Community development, and community capacity building, can help to fill the gaps in some cases – but too often this work is undervalued by commissioners and funders.
Supporting people with mental health issues is a particular challenge. The links between loneliness and mental health issues are well established, so it's inevitable that services supporting people who are lonely will come across people with mental health needs. However, many of those providing connecting services were struggling due to gaps in provision for those with complex mental health needs. As such, the services were finding themselves being treated as a stop gap service by referring agencies, for people whose needs were too complex for them to meet; and being unable to refer clients on to support they needed.
Connecting communities is a whole community effort. On the positive side, we heard how effective it can be when the whole community gets involved in tackling loneliness. In the Mendips everyone from taxi drivers to pub landlords can sign up, and receive training to enable them to identify and signpost people to support in the community, and those who need a bit of extra support to connect can meet with a 'health connector' who can offer one-to-one support.
Understanding the impact of these initiatives needs heart as well as head. Measuring impact is a real challenge, given the very personal and subjective nature of loneliness. Our participants agreed that quantitative evaluation was important, but also argued that we need to hear the stories of the individuals whose lives have been changed.
Loneliness people are lush. While we didn't shy away from discussing the big issues, our biggest takeaway from the day was an overwhelming sense of the optimism, tenacity and commitment of those working to tackle loneliness. And this spilt over into their commitment to listen to, learn from and share with each other – and the conversations flowed and flowed. As one participant put it, "everyone was lush".
At the end of the day we left sunny Bristol with loads of learning, and looking forward to more great conversations in London and Glasgow over the next couple of weeks.
Kate Jopling is an independent consultant working with Kaleioscope.