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Mental health experts are calling upon people throughout Gloucestershire and Herefordshire to become ‘Winter Friends’ in a bid to help combat loneliness.

A national campaign has been launched by the NHS to encourage 100,000 to pledge to look in on elderly friends and relatives during the colder months.

Dr Jane Melton, Clinical Director for Social Inclusion with ²gether NHS Foundation Trust, said it was a very worthwhile campaign that she hopes that people locally will support.

She said: “Each winter many elderly people become seriously ill or sadly die as a result of the cold weather. Many more will become isolated and lonely. The aim of the Winter Friends campaign is to appeal to our sense of being neighbourly through small acts of kindness and showing interest to make life better for someone in our communities.

“We at ²gether see evidence on a daily basis, through our work with service users, carers and volunteers, which shows that there is still a sense of community and generosity throughout Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. But we know that as a community, we can do more.

“I feel sure that people in our local communities will be willing to give up some time to help their friends and neighbours. It is not only the elderly who can become lonely at this time of year – there are other vulnerable people this message could apply to as well.

“There is evidence to suggest that being generous and doing good deeds for people not only benefits the people that we pledge to look out for but it will also benefit our own mental wellbeing as well.

“I would encourage everyone to join in and sign up as a Winter Friend this year”.

Jane’s comments were echoed by Roger Clayton, Independent Chair of the Gloucestershire Safeguarding Adults Board.

He said: “Winter can be a lonely time for some, increasing the risk of neglect or harm for the most vulnerable in our society.

“Communities are our eyes and ears in helping to keep vulnerable adults safe, so I would urge people to sign up to this great initiative. If you are concerned about a vulnerable person this winter call Gloucestershire County Council’s Adult Helpdesk on 01452 426868.”

Research suggests that loneliness can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health.

Figures from the Mental Health Foundation indicate that four in 10 people in the UK have felt depressed due to loneliness. This can become more of an issue in colder weather, and also around Christmas time, when many people seem to be meeting with friends and family to celebrate the festivities.

As well as depression, persistent loneliness can also cause stress, as well as poorer functioning of the immune and cardiovascular systems.

There is also evidence that loneliness makes it harder to control habits and behaviour leading to health problems. Lonely middle-aged adults drink more alcohol, have unhealthier diets and take less exercise than the socially contented.

In fact winter can be a very hard time of year all round – with less daylight, less opportunity to get outdoors and exercise and big demands upon time and money.

The Winter Friends initiative, promoted by NHS Choices, is asking for 100,000 people to sign an electronic pledge that states: “I will take time out this winter to look in on an elderly friend or neighbour to make sure they are warm and coping well.”

Those who sign the Winter Friends pledge will receive free cold weather alerts and email tips throughout the winter to help them do their bit.

People who wish to sign the pledge and join the NHS Winter Friends campaign should go to www.nhs.uk/WinterFriends

Tips ²gether is encouraging people to follow are:

· Look out for your family, friends and neighbours and if they live alone try and pop by at least once a week. When visiting, check their home is warm enough and not draughty, that they have enough food in the house, that they have medication and have had a flu jab, and that they are able to get out if they want to.

· Don’t just keep in touch over the internet, telephone or on social networking sites. Physical, face to face contact is very important.

· If you are lonely, try and involve yourself in some social activities. Look to see what events are on at your local community centre, visit the theatre, join a group of like-minded individuals, or take up a new hobby. Taking the first step can be difficult, but the long term benefits can be enormous.

· To help combat loneliness try to get outdoors. Even walking to the shops or walking around a park will bring you into contact with people and just saying ‘hello’ and getting a kind word back in return will boost your confidence. If it is icy or has been snowing, make sure you have suitable footwear and someone to assist you if required.

If you are suffering from mental ill health you should speak to your GP. You can also contact Let’s Talk on 0800 073 2200 if you are suffering with stress, anxiety or depression.

The Samaritans are also available to provide support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on 08457 90 90 90.