What is social isolation?

11th March 2021

Social isolation is a term often used interchangeably with loneliness, but while the two are closely related, they do not necessarily mean the same thing.

Social isolation and loneliness

You can be lonely in a crowd, but you will not be socially isolated. Isolation has been defined as an objective state whereby the number of contacts a person has can be counted, whereas loneliness is a subjective experience. While the terms may have slightly different meanings, both can be painful experiences and have a harmful impact on the individual.

Loneliness is a personal feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and the actual level. It refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships. Loneliness is never desired and reducing these feelings can take a long time.

Social isolation is an independent measure of the number of contacts that people have. It is about the quantity and not quality of relationships. People may choose to have a small number of contacts.

People can experience different levels of social isolation and loneliness over their lifetime, moving in and out of these states as their personal circumstances change.

What triggers social isolation

Social isolation is a state of being cut off from normal social networks, which can be triggered by factors such as loss of mobility, unemployment, or health issues. Isolation can involve staying at home for lengthy periods of time, having no access to services or community involvement, and little or no communication with friends, family, and acquaintances.

There are many contributing factors to social isolation. Many things can prevent people from leaving the house and having contact with other members of society, such as long-term illness, disabilities, transport issues, unemployment and economic struggles, or domestic violence.

Some may be physically able to go out and meet people but are inhibited from doing so by factors such as depression, social adversity, becoming a carer for a loved one, or bereavement. Any of these factors can be barriers to forming and maintaining social networks and can lead to loneliness and isolation.

Social isolation and loneliness can affect all members of society, including families and younger people, so there is no typical profile of someone at risk. Patterns are not equally distributed across the population but based on research and study, children and adults who are socio-economically disadvantaged, those living alone, widowed or separated, and people in poor physical and mental health are at particular risk.

At CSNW we help local people tackle social isolation with a variety of services such as befriending, mentoring, counselling, and social groups. If you or someone you know may benefit from our help simply contact us on 01254 460080.

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