This week’s guest blog is from Olivia Field, Policy and Engagement Manager for the British Red Cross and Co-op partnership that seeks to tackle loneliness and social isolation across the UK. They recently published  Barriers to Belonging: An exploration of loneliness among people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. 

We know from the Office for National Statistics that 5% of adults in England report feeling lonely “often” or “always”. We also know feeling this way can have negative effects on your health, wellbeing and productivity. 

But we don’t yet know how these experiences differ according to ethnicity. Without a more nuanced understanding of loneliness, we risk creating solutions that fail to cater to all of society.

Unpicking the experiences of people with BAME heritage

Determined to rectify this, British Red Cross and Co-op worked with researchers at the University of Sheffield and the Runnymede Trust to start to unpick the particular experiences of loneliness among people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds –  what we’ve found should have far-reaching implications.  

Barriers to Belonging draws on a survey of almost 1,000 respondents (of which 69% reported being from a BAME background) as well as in-depth interviews and focus groups with more than 60 people from both BAME and White British backgrounds who were experiencing loneliness, and an additional 40 interviews with service providers.

Courtesy and respect

The findings confirm that being treated with less respect because of ethnicity, religion, and ‘being a migrant’ also increased people’s likelihood of feeling always or often lonely.

Not belonging

A sense of belonging protects people from feeling always or often lonely – 67% of survey respondents who felt they didn’t belong to their community said they were ‘always or ’often’ lonely, compared to just 16% who felt they did belong.

Meaningfully connecting to the people and places around us and feeling accepted, safe and included helps us feel as though we belong. Yet feeling unsafe, unwelcome or fearful of hostile encounters in the workplace, services and neighbourhoods disproportionately affects non-white British people. 

Racism, discrimination and loneliness 

The research found people from BAME backgrounds are more at risk of experiencing certain factors that cause loneliness, and often face greater barriers accessing help to overcome it. We found the following.

  • New evidence of racism and xenophobia links to loneliness.
  • People who feel like they ‘belong’ to their community are less likely to feel lonely. Yet, that crucial sense of belonging is often less attainable for people from BAME backgrounds. 
  • Non-White British groups are far more likely to feel unwelcome, or as though a service was “not for them”.

These studies shine a spotlight on additional triggers of loneliness that have, to date, largely been overlooked, such as racism, discrimination and xenophobia.

Almost half of people – 49% – who had experienced discrimination at work or in their local neighbourhood reported being always or often lonely, compared with just over a quarter – 28% – of people who hadn’t. Just 31% of Black African respondents had not experienced any type of discrimination, compared with 74% of white British respondents. 

Bigger barriers to overcoming loneliness?

While all ethnic groups encounter barriers to accessing help, we found these can often be magnified for non-white British groups:

  • All minority ethnic group survey respondents were more likely than the White British group to report “not having enough free time” and “affordability” as barriers to participating in activities or accessing services that might help to tackle loneliness.
  • White British respondents were far less likely to feel unwelcome or as though a service was “not for them”.
  • While all ethnic groups worried what people would think if they reached out for help, 76% of the “other BAME” group and 70% of the Pakistani group said they would worry about what others thought about their feelings of loneliness.

What can we do?

Barriers to Belonging puts forward a series of recommendations for national policymakers, local authorities and service providers to ensure people experiencing loneliness get the help they need, no matter their background. These fall into four categories:

  1. Sustainable funding – including an increased investment in community integration projects
  2. Equality of access and feeling welcome including teaching about loneliness and difference in schools, tackling bullying in the workplace and ensuring inclusive service provision 
  3. Raising awareness and tackling stigma – including dedicating a strand of the government’s loneliness awareness campaign to tackling stigma among people who experience particular difficulties or challenges, including those from certain BAME communities 
  4. Conducting further research including developing guidance on using the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) measure of loneliness across different cultures and languages.