Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics reported that, despite increases in disposable income and a higher employment rate, population mental wellbeing scores have fallen again. The proportion of people who have a partner, family member or friend to rely on if they had a serious problem has also fallen. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that people who felt marginalised in society were the driving force behind the EU referendum result.

All of these indicators point to a lack of social cohesion. This isn’t something that can be solved by economics alone: a problem like loneliness needs a human response, not a financial one. Last year Age UK’s ‘No one should have no one’ campaign led with the shocking message that more than one million older people haven’t spoken to a friend, neighbour or family member for at least a month. This week, British Red Cross and the Co-operative Group have published a study revealing that nearly one-fifth of the UK population are always or often lonely.  Very few of us still live in extended family settings or close-knit neighbourhoods. Work, housing, marriages and friendships are all less permanent than they were in previous generations, and this lack of stability can leave people feeling socially isolated.

Loneliness is such a waste. Research suggests that it is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. It not only causes illness, it robs people of the moments that make life meaningful and worthwhile. When you ask people with high levels of wellbeing about their lives, they’ll tell you about a strong network of friends and family who support them through the good and the bad times. We need this social support to survive and play a meaningful role in our community, and as responsible citizens we should be trying our best to create a society where everyone feels supported and valued.

Social action volunteering can help to address our loneliness epidemic in several ways. An Age UK loneliness and isolation evidence review found that befriending schemes are one of the most effective services for combating both isolation and loneliness.

At Volunteering Matters, our Help at Hand befriending project, based in Stirling, has been shortlisted for an NHS-sponsored health and wellbeing award. This award recognises projects that address social isolation and health and wellbeing, in view of how deeply intertwined these two issues are. So many heart-warming friendships have been made as a result of this project: Katie, Vikki and many more young people have gained so much through forming a friendship with an older person in their community. This is what we call the ‘double benefit’ of volunteering. It isn’t only the beneficiary who gains, our volunteers tell us time and again about all the benefits they have gained through volunteering. They tell us that volunteering has boosted their confidence and self-esteem, helped them to develop new skills and, most importantly, enabled them to form new and meaningful relationships with people who they might not otherwise encounter in their daily lives.

We also believe that older people can take action to expand their social circles by volunteering themselves. At Volunteering Matters we run a successful, inter-generational volunteer project called Grandmentors. The Age UK loneliness and isolation evidence review found that intergenerational contact is probably more effective in combating loneliness than contact with one’s own age group (although both methods have proven successful). The Grandmentors project recruits volunteers aged 50+ to mentor young care leavers: the mentors make use of their wisdom and experience to support their young mentee through this key transitional period in their lives. The Islington Gazette interviewed our volunteer Jeremy and his mentee Filmon about the relationship they have formed through the Grandmentors project. We run this project in Islington and Hounslow, but hope to make it more widely available across the UK in the future.

One-to-one befriending and mentoring are highly effective models, but they aren’t the only options. In 2013 we set up a programme in Middlesbrough called Sporting Chance, which engages older men in group activities and exercise classes to boost their health and wellbeing. For the men who take part, Sporting Chance offers the twin benefits of a ready-made social circle and free exercise classes to help boost their health and wellbeing, prevent illness and enable them to better manage chronic illnesses. In its first two years, 500 men took part in Sporting Chance group activities and classes. At the end of the two years we carried out an evaluation. 100% of participants told us that they felt happier in themselves, 83% had begun to eat a healthier diet and 42% told us that they now visited the doctor less frequently. These results demonstrate that social action volunteering can make an incredible difference to people’s lives – reducing loneliness and boosting health and wellbeing.

It’s a common misconception that loneliness is only a problem for older people. Loneliness can affect people across the life span, due to a range of social, economic and health-related factors. Our Allies programme, based in Hounslow, recruits volunteer mentors to act as an ‘independent visitor’ for looked-after children. Many looked-after children feel socially isolated as a result of the life challenges they face: having a supportive adult to guide them through their teenage years can make a world of difference. The volunteer acts as a mentor, friend and positive adult role model for the young person. It is a statutory requirement that all looked-after children are offered an ‘independent visitor’, but in reality many local authorities do not offer this service. Our Allies programme, and similar services offered by other charities, can play an important role here.

I hope these examples convince you of the important role that social action volunteering can play in tackling loneliness and boosting wellbeing on a national scale. We encourage funders and commissioners to consider volunteer programmes to address social issues such as loneliness, isolation and health inequalities. While volunteer programmes are not free to deliver, they are relatively low-cost and can deliver an excellent return on investment, in terms of adverse effects avoided and improvements to quality of life. Volunteering is beneficial for the volunteers, the beneficiaries and society as a whole – all we need now is for decision-makers to prioritise volunteering and make more opportunities available across the UK.