Loneliness is a major issue in our culture in every part of the world and does not discriminate. As more people spend time behind computer screens or are home bound, meaningful connections are on the decline globally.
In surveys, half of respondents report feelings of loneliness, which can contribute to mental health problems such as depression. Treatment suggestions encourage lonely people to address loneliness by joining a class, volunteering, seeking out support online, getting professional help or have a pet to keep them company. If these techniques worked, the reports of loneliness would not remain high. Current solutions and well meaning suggestions are not enough to address what has become an epidemic.
One initiative in the UK is taking a different approach towards loneliness with a community-led effort called loneliness lab. Loneliness Lab is a partnership between Lendlease and Collectively, based in the London area. The results from their project kickoff in 2018 led to some local projects and the group plans to continue this work in 2019.
The Loneliness Lab sprint kicked off the project in October of 2018, using design thinking concepts to quickly build out ideas and get them into the real world. Design thinking is a creative, solution-oriented approach that encourages people to step away from traditional methods of problem solving.
Their publicly available Loneliness Lab Playbook has results of the kick-off including stories of openness from participants and their experiences of loneliness. I reached out on Twitter to Bethan Harris, one of the organizers to learn more about this project and their upcoming plans for this year.
When asked about the openness of the participants describe in their playbook, Harris said “we used a very carefully designed approach to facilitation using a combination of tools to help people feel comfortable opening up. One was an immersive gallery experience at the start of our kickoff day. Participants walked into the event, into a room full of portraits of lonely Londoners. They were given headsets and listened to their stories anonymously. This gallery, was designed to show the diversity of loneliness - that it affects people in many ways - and also to model vulnerability and reduce stigma. We were careful to include stories from people within our own teams so that we were walking the talk and sharing our own stories too. For example, I talked at the start of the event about moving to London after my dad died.”
Having facilitators willing to share with participants goes against the grain of therapy. In a traditional client and the therapist session, the therapist is not encouraged to share personal information. However, in this environment, by sharing personal experiences, facilitators let the attendees that it is okay to have struggles.
Most people feel bouts of loneliness, but for others it is a major mental health issue, leading to suicidal ideation or even attempts. How can a diverse group of strangers feel comfortable discussing experiences of loneliness, without bringing up intense feelings? This was top of mind for Harris and for her team knowing that this could be a triggering topic for some of the attendees. “We approached this sensitively and over time. For example, in the application form people were asked about what loneliness meant to them, and we ran briefing sessions before the kick off event where we explained our approach. We also walked the talk from the beginning, working with Lendlease, in the design phase, to test the tools and explore how opening up about loneliness helped us.“
A safe environment, transparency, and honesty, combined with design thinking, this was a powerful example of how to change address loneliness in our society. Several pilot projects were launched from the initiative with playbooks for other communities to learn how to implement this in their community.
Those in the London area can learn more about the project and get involved in 2019. People outside of London who want to bring this to their community can find materials for free on the Loneliness Lab website. Perhaps more communities will adopt a design thinking approach to end loneliness and the solution starts with transparent conversations.