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Town Cures Loneliness

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

In 2013, the Somerset town of Frome began a pioneering project, which boosted community spirit. In the age of Covid it has come into its own, proving that oxytocin, the socialising hormone, has all kinds of health-giving benefits.

When coronavirus arrived in the UK and enforced lockdown ensued, the impact on mental health, for huge numbers, has been devastating. In early May, the Office for National Statistics reported that the number of adults experiencing high levels of anxiety had more than doubled to over 25 million since the end of 2019. Millions of people have also been left feeling isolated. One in 10 adults said they had feelings of loneliness in a study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation earlier this year – since lockdown that number has shot up to one in four.

However, if you were lucky enough to be living in Frome (as in “Va Va Frome”), near Bath, in south west England, life would be rather better. Frome is home to musicians, designers and other creatives, and holds a popular monthly market, selling everything from West Country cider and kimchi to vintage furniture, with an atmosphere more akin to a festival. Its most famous street, Catherine Hill, is a steep cobbled passageway, lined with haberdashers, florists and pretty independent boutiques. One mile away, in a low-rise and rather less attractive building set in a large car park, is Frome Medical Practice. While most towns have multiple GP surgeries, this practice serves all of Frome and as a result it’s something of a hub, reports The Telegraph.

In yet another good news story characterised by resourceful, imaginative female leadership (see links to more at end of article), Frome's pioneering GP, Dr Helen Kingston, began a radical project from the practice that set out to approach healthcare differently in 2013. She believed that if her patients felt better supported by their community, it could help improve their lifestyles and address certain problems they brought to appointments. Now known as Compassionate Frome, the project has since snowballed and has been credited with beating loneliness in the town, something that the rest of the UK could learn a thing or two from. And something that has come into its own since the coronavirus pandemic began, as we rely on community spirit more than ever.

With the help of a small team called Health Connections Mendip, they did this in two ways. First, they compiled a list of the social clubs and support groups already operating in Frome, and helped start more, including the Talking Cafés, then collated the information in an online directory, so it was all in one place rather than scattered haphazardly on shop noticeboards and flyers around town. There are now more than 400 official groups.

Secondly, they employed a handful of ‘health connectors’ to help people plan their care and look after their well-being, and trained roughly 700 local volunteers of all trades – hairdressers, taxi drivers, waitresses – to become ‘community connectors’ and tell customers and neighbours what’s going on in the community that’s relevant to them.

All of this effort created an extraordinary amount of community spirit, managing to include all of Frome's 28,000 residents, in events, dog walks, street parties (socially distanced), markets and numerous other inclusive, community happenings.

Now a new book, The Compassion Project, co-written by Dr Abel, has investigated the secret to Frome’s unique sense of community spirit – and its surprising knock-on effect. According to his research, the number of emergency admissions to hospital in Frome reduced by 14 per cent between 2013 and 2017, while over the same period, emergency admissions in Somerset as a whole increased by 29 per cent.

Dr Abel attributes this squarely to the Compassionate Frome project. ‘When we looked at the data, we were absolutely astounded,’ he tells me. ‘It showed that emergency admissions in Frome had gone down at a time when in Somerset, and everywhere else in the UK, they had risen enormously. Because of the work I’ve done before, I knew there were no interventions ever that had successfully reduced emergency admissions.’

In 2010, a study by Brigham Young University in Utah found evidence that good social relationships can have a greater effect on making people live longer than quitting smoking and alcohol, regular exercise, weight loss and a healthy diet. ‘Oxytocin, the socialising hormone, has all kinds of health-giving benefits, including reducing our blood pressure and improving our immune system,’ explains Dr Abel. ‘So when we become more social and are engaged in compassion, love, laughter and friendship, it has an absolutely profound effect on us in all kinds of ways. If you apply that across a population, it’s no surprise that it has a powerful impact on peoples’ health and well-being.’

On 25 May 2018, Dr Kingston was invited to 10 Downing Street to receive an award for her extraordinary work tackling loneliness in Frome. Theresa May, then Prime Minister, wrote her a personal letter commending her efforts.

And yet, if it is so simple to achieve, why aren’t all towns as close-knit as Frome? Why do many Britons still not know their neighbours’ names? And why do millions of people feel isolated?

It's surely about inspirational leadership and just getting on with trying to stitch together communities. As one Frome resident said: ‘And actually, any town, if they have the desire to, can say, “We’re going to do things differently and we’re going to be creative.” It will take time to get to the stage that Frome’s at, which is actually making it happen. It’s just a case of getting started.’

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