Stigma of broken family relationships exacerbated by lockdown, show Newnham academics

People estranged from their families have found lockdown restrictions particularly difficult, both practically and emotionally, shows a new study by  Newnham’s Dr Susan Imrie, Dr Sarah Foley and colleagues. 

The report was researched in collaboration with UK-based charity Stand Alone and colleagues at Edge Hill University. A UK-wide survey asked individuals about the experience of being estranged from family during the current crisis, and how it has impacted them and their family relationships. Over half of the c. 800 respondents said they felt more isolated now than they had before lockdown.

During the pandemic many estranged people have become more conscious of not having family to support them, for example to help with grocery shopping. For some it has brought the realisation that their well-being is not important to other family members, and compounded the feeling of being unloved and uncared for.

“There’s a lot of stigma around estrangement, and people in this situation have experienced it in a heightened way during lockdown. Many have become more aware that they have smaller support networks than others,” said Dr Susan Imrie.

The researchers say the importance of family relationships has been highlighted repeatedly throughout lockdown in television advertising, news headlines and social media. But for those who were already estranged from family, the pandemic and the messages surrounding it have compounded feelings of stigma and social isolation.

“Since lockdown began there has been a lot of talk about what family members should be doing to support each other at this time of crisis. We’ve all been encouraged to keep in touch with relatives through Skype and FaceTime. But this has really compounded feelings of isolation for those who don’t have close family relationships,” said Dr Sarah Foley.

It is estimated that over five million people in the UK are estranged from a family member, but despite being so common it is not something that is widely known about or discussed. Over 9000 students at UK Universities are estranged from their families, leaving them financially, materially and emotionally vulnerable during their studies. These talented, committed young people may be up to three times more likely to drop out of University as a result.

“Despite the assumption that family members will be a source of support during the COVID-19 crisis, this is not always the case. One in five families across the UK have no contact with an estranged family member, and this new report finds that very little has changed for them during the pandemic,” said Dr Becca Bland, CEO of Stand Alone.

Stand Alone supports people who have more challenging experiences of family, and who are estranged from their entire family or a key family member. The reasons behind estrangement in the community are varied: some are surviving abuse and neglect, others have been distanced for coming out as LGBT+ or for rejecting cultural, religious and political values. The results of this study will help Stand Alone understand how best to target support during the pandemic.

In 2018, the University of Cambridge pledged to Stand Alone and young people to create additional support for those students who may be struggling due to estrangement. It committed to giving estranged students a non-repayable enhanced bursary to assist with financial struggles, and to ensure estranged young people are housed over the holiday periods. The Realise Project works with young people in care and estranged people pre-University.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly difficult for estranged people: this new research demonstrates the importance of reflecting on the support networks that individuals may have access to.

Family Estrangement and the COVID-19 Crisis: A closer look at how broken family relationships have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Report by Dr Lucy Blake (Edge Hill University), Dr Becca Bland (Stand Alone), Dr Sarah Foley and Dr Susan Imrie (Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge).