Badges designed to combat loneliness were being given out at train stations in London on Tuesday morning, as part of an initiative inspired by murdered Labour MP Jo Cox.
‘Happy to chat’ pins were handed out to commuters at Victoria, Waterloo, King’s Cross and Westminster stations to symbolise the launch of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
Cox, the former MP for the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen, was in the early stages of setting up a cross-party group to tackle loneliness before she was killed last June.
Her friend and fellow Labour MP Rachel Reeves, who is co-chairing the commission alongside Conservative MP Seema Kennedy, said that Cox had always been concerned by social isolation.
“As a young girl she used to go on the post round with her grandfather who was a postman in West Yorkshire, and she realised that for some people her granddad was the only person they were going to see that day or perhaps for days at a time,” she said.
“That had quite a profound impact on Jo.”
Loneliness is a shockingly common phenomenon in the UK, and it’s not just an issue that affects the elderly. In 2010, the Mental Health Foundation found that 18- to 34-year-olds were more likely to feel lonely often, to worry about feeling alone and to feel depressed because of loneliness than the over-55s.
More than nine million people privately admit to feeling as though they are “always or often alone”, according to research by organisations – including Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society and Refugee Action – supporting the Jo Cox commission. Despite this, most of those lonely people told researchers that they would never talk publicly about how they feel.
This perhaps isn’t surprising. Humans are social, judgmental beings, and loneliness has long been stigmatised. One major 1992 study by researchers in the US found that lonely people were generally less liked and perceived as weaker, less attractive and less competent than people with lots of friends.
Other research has showed that women in the UK are more likely than men to feel lonely, and that lacking connections with friends, neighbours and family can actually be harmful to our health. Social isolation is worse for us than well-known health risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity, according to the Campaign against Loneliness, which says that loneliness is comparable with smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of the danger it poses to our longevity.
Under the slogan ‘Start a Conversation’, the Jo Cox-inspired initiative hopes to shatter the stigma surrounding loneliness and educate people on how they can better connect with one another.
“Now is the time to break that silence by starting a conversation,” said Reeves and Kennedy in a statement. “We need a national conversation about the scale and impact of the problem.
“But just as importantly, every single one of us can start a conversation with somebody that will help break the cycle of silent suffering and unintentional neglect.”
Watch: The inspirational Jo Cox
Badges reading ‘Tube chat?’ were given a lukewarm reception by many Londoners when they were circulated on the tube last September. However, it’s hoped that the Loneliness Commission’s pins will be more generously received.
Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, said that she would have been “absolutely delighted” to see the launch of the “brilliant” commission.
She said: “One of the things that Jo was really clear about was that there are issues that transcend party politics.”
Images: Rex Features, iStock