Other people may complicate our lives, but life without them would be unbearably desolate. None of us can be truly human in isolation. The qualities that make us human emerge only in the ways we relate to other people. – Harold S. Kushner
Isolation is not something uncommon to most people. It’s likely that at some point in your life, you’ve felt alone, whether an existential loneliness or a physical isolation; perhaps both and perhaps at the same time. You may also have had people to pull you through it. This, however, is not the case for everyone.
Anti-apartheid and human rights activist Bishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘A person is a person through other persons; you can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.’ There is something deeply dehumanising about living without human connection but not only that; research suggests that chronic feelings of subjective social isolation have an increased mortality risk comparable to high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking, and can actually accelerate the ageing process. Isolation is bad for our mental health and it’s bad for our physical health.
Experiences of social isolation are often cited as one of the side-effects of poverty and whilst they may not be causally connected, isolation and poverty are strongly linked in terms of lived experience. Research also suggests that people living on a lower income are at more risk of social isolation and of strained relationships within families than those on higher incomes. In a study by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), focus group participants living in economically deprived contexts said:
Poverty means being lonely…and not being able to get other things because you are lonely.
Even if you are hungry…you can’t go to them to ask for food or money, because they are judging you that you are poor…they won’t give you money…so it’s better that you isolate yourself.
Another group participant and general member of the public articulated the vicious circle of poverty-isolation:
You don’t know what they are feeling inside, and they do isolate themselves because they are being classified as the poor, so it won’t be to go and help as a neighbour because they are classified as a poor family, so they will isolate themselves, full of hatred to anyone.
Because poverty sometimes poses a choice between isolation and shame (with isolation the preferable option in many instances), it is a real threat to confidence and participation. How might this manifest in a family situation? Isolation excludes others, which means mums, dads and carers will face the most difficult job in the world (raising children) alone. Isolation can even result in a situation where parents exclude their own children; when caregivers are preoccupied with basic human survival (the next meal, keeping warm), children may not get the attention they need to flourish.
Child suffering is increasing at an alarming rate. Rising poverty across the UK is rendering families in already disadvantaged communities unable to cope and it is the children who suffer the most with a range of emotional, psychological and social problems. The Early Intervention Foundation’s (EIF) family stress model shows how poverty and economic pressure affects the quality of interparental relationships, which in turn impacts child outcomes. Longitudinal evidence shows that poverty or economic pressure impacts parents’ mental health, which can cause parental conflict and difficulties with parenting.
What can we do? The obvious antidote to any poverty-related issue is to eradicate poverty. There are many organisations that work extremely hard to do just that, however, poverty is no quick-fix and it is important to address the problems that arise from economic and other forms of deprivation, not least of which is isolation and the impact this has on families, children and society at large.
Our mission, at Kids Matter, is to reduce the impact of poverty on children through community-based programmes, which equip parents with the tools (confidence, competence, community) to build strong families. Research has shown that the most effective early intervention to help children is group-based parenting programmes but we know that the effort it takes to parent intentionally is not sustainable without support. Community might not be the answer to poverty but it is the answer to isolation, and for people who don’t want to be reached, who might be living in the throes of shame, depression or frustration, we have to make sure that they don’t fall through the gap—that we rally alongside one another to encourage and nurture community-spirited relationships. We have seen the difference this can make to parents and carers, and to their children:
It’s nice to know we have each other now as a group, that if I had a problem, I would now be comfortable to share and speak about it, which is a new thing for me as I normally wouldn’t but I now can cause I felt safe. – Nichola
I was afraid to come but I came with courage and found a safe place to express myself. I found community and now I feel connected on every level. Kids Matter has also opened up communication with my husband in our parenting. – Tania
[Kids Matter] helped me know I am not alone in my challenges and that I am not going crazy. – Stacey
I’ve been amazed at the depth of relationships that have been built so quickly- even with the women I didn’t previously know. – Jamie
I’ve realised I’ve got a support network around me. – Ashley
Together, we can build a future where every child in need is raised in a strong family.
Kids Matter is a programme that engages with families and young children before crisis point – it strengthens families by giving mums and dads the tools to be competent, confident parents or caregivers. To get involved, as a volunteer or by financially supporting our programme, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.