Political initiative: Loneliness is increasing in Germany - why this is dangerous for democracy and health

More research, model projects in municipalities, broad social alliances against grievances – does this sound familiar? It sounds like the universal recipe used by federal governments to combat pressing problems in health and social services.

Political initiative: Loneliness is increasing in Germany - why this is dangerous for democracy and health

More research, model projects in municipalities, broad social alliances against grievances – does this sound familiar? It sounds like the universal recipe used by federal governments to combat pressing problems in health and social services. Sometimes it's about outpatient care for the elderly, sometimes it's about better networking between general practitioners and hospitals. And today we're talking about one of the most pressing issues of our time: the rapidly increasing loneliness in our society.

The cabinet has just approved a “strategy against loneliness” with more than 100 measures. There aren't all the good ideas in there: new chairs for loneliness research, founding a nationwide "coalition against loneliness" made up of companies, unions, associations, initiatives, foundations, clubs or religious communities, model projects against loneliness in the 28 to 59 year old age group .

All of this is urgently needed because loneliness is extremely dangerous, not only for health, but also for democracy. People with extremely thin social networks are more likely to develop depression and diabetes in the long term, they suffer strokes and heart attacks more often, and they die many years earlier. In other words, effectively combating loneliness would probably help save billions in spending in the health sector in the medium term. But that's not all: chronic loneliness endangers the stability of liberal civil societies.

The journalist and theorist Hannah Ahrendt formulated this thesis in her standard work “Elements and Origins of Total Domination”. According to her, the spread of deep-seated feelings of loneliness was an important factor that paved the way for the National Socialist movement. Individual case analyzes of the perpetrators of school massacres and terrorist attacks show that loneliness often played a significant role. A current survey of young adults by Bochum loneliness researcher Maike Luhmann shows that lonely people are more likely to lose trust in democracy and are more inclined to conspiracy theories than those who are well integrated socially.

And it was precisely these young people who were hit hard during the years of the pandemic. Their social networks collapsed during the lockdown phases, many holed up at home in front of their computers, for which an American psychologist invented the word “Cave Syndrome”. Apparently, even after the pandemic, many have not yet recovered from the state-imposed withdrawal phase: according to a recent survey, almost one in seven teenagers and young adults in North Rhine-Westphalia feels “very lonely”.

The strategy paper from the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs is therefore most welcome. Nobody could have anything against the proposed measures, and yet it has a horse's foot: the decision is not linked to binding cost commitments. So cheap. That's why this initiative is in danger of being a non-starter. And this despite the fact that Germany is fundamentally better off than many other European countries. Fortunately, loneliness research has been on the rise for some time. There are more clubs, more choirs, larger charitable organizations, more volunteers, and the third sector of civil society is very well developed.

A “Solitude Competence Network” was founded under the umbrella of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Work and Social Pedagogy. On the website you can find a variety of initiatives against isolation under “Offers” - from the voluntary nationwide telephone hotline “Silbernetz” for senior citizens to the nationwide neighborhood network Nebenan.de to apps for younger sufferers such as “helpcity”, where people in similar life situations can exchange information anonymously with one another.

So there is a real wealth of offers, there are numerous model projects. They're just constantly in danger of running out of money. Instead of further model projects, long-term financing of existing initiatives and associations would finally be necessary.

Combating loneliness costs money. Lot of money. This is a painful realization from Britain, where the welfare state crumbled during the Thatcher era. British society is still suffering from the consequences of greater social inequality and higher poverty, both driving factors for more loneliness. The state's influence on housing construction and the expansion of municipal infrastructure and neighborhoods dwindled and with it the opportunities for mutual social support and encounters. The state health system, the National Health Service, was cut.

But the British made a virtue out of necessity and invented “social prescribing,” which could now serve as a model for Germany. The focus is on what are often the last regular contacts for the lonely, the family doctors. If you suspect that the basic problem of a patient sitting in front of you is not actually the disease but rather the isolation, you open a form on your computer that takes one minute to fill out. You tick “loneliness”, perhaps also secondary factors such as “high debt” or “substance abuse” and click send. Then a so-called “link worker” takes over the helm on behalf of the municipality. After detailed advice, he refers the isolated people to clubs, dance or painting courses and, if necessary, also organizes appointments for psychotherapy. But people are often helped by someone taking them by the hand and leading them back into society in small steps.

Of course, social prescriptions would also be desirable for Germany. In order to introduce it, however, a major intervention would be necessary in one of the most complex legal regulations in our country: the social codes. Because loneliness does not have the status of an illness; there is no billing number for it. A competent team of legal scientists needs to be involved here, not psychologists or loneliness researchers.

The urgency of involving Germany's doctors in the fight against loneliness has long been recognized; a nationwide “Social Prescribing Network” was recently founded at the Charité. We are currently still in the process of finding suitable German names for key terms such as “link worker”, says the initiator and general practitioner Wolfram Herrmann.

In the Berlin-Lichtenberg district you don't want to wait that long. Martyna Voß, founder and project manager of the Soziale Gesundheit e.V. association, has already introduced social advice on prescription, even if the prescription itself does not yet exist. But many doctors send the isolated people to her and her staff. Two local general practitioners even provide a separate room for social counseling in their shared practice. What has been chronically lacking in the past is – you guessed it – financing. The club has often been threatened with extinction after funding ran out because the concept is not anchored in social law.

It remains to be hoped that some federal government will at some point realize that fine words are not enough if no money flows afterwards. That combating loneliness requires more than new model projects, a bit of research and more therapy places, which foreseeably won't exist due to a lack of psychotherapists. That there is an urgent need to combat poverty, to invest in social housing, schools, education and voluntary initiatives in order to firmly anchor this burning issue.

Unfortunately, there are reasonable doubts as to whether the incumbent federal government, which, driven by the FDP, has to keep an eye on the debt brake, is capable of this foresight.