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Health: The loneliness taboo and how to tackle it

PUBLISHED: 18:00 15 March 2013

People are often ashamed to admit they're lonely. Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.

People are often ashamed to admit they're lonely. Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.

PA Features Archive/Press Association Images

The number of people living and having dinner by themselves has doubled over the last 40 years, and mental health charity Mind is worried this is contributing to increased rates of loneliness.

More people than ever are eating along every night, says mental health charity Mind. Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.More people than ever are eating along every night, says mental health charity Mind. Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.

Experts discuss the impacts of being lonely and why it’s a cause for concern.

“I can spend some weekends not speaking to a soul. I’m lucky to have a full, rich work life, but once I’m home I am very much alone, and sometimes the loneliness is crippling.”

Eleanor is a bright, positive, attractive 40-year-old, with a successful career in PR. On the surface, she has everything going for her, and spends her days surrounded by colleagues and in constant contact with people.

Yet, as Eleanor admits, she’s also incredibly lonely - and, somewhat ironically, she’s not alone.

According to the General Lifestyle Survey Report released by the Office for National Statistics earlier this month, looking at how British society has changed between 1971 and 2011, the number of people living alone and eating dinner for one every evening has doubled in the past four decades.

Of course, just because somebody lives alone, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lonely.

“Equally, you can also live with a big crowd and be surrounded by people and still feel lonely,” says Bridget O’Connell, head of information at the mental health charity Mind.

Indeed, loneliness is deeply personal, and has more to do with a lack of meaningful interaction and support, than whether or not somebody is entirely physically isolated.

Though it might not be something talked about very openly, chances are, loneliness is far more common than people may think.

Last year, pages about loneliness were among the most-visited on the Mind website, receiving around 80,000 visits.

“Obviously there are people out there who this resonates with,” says Bridget. “And it’s not necessarily people who are socially isolated. It can be surprising the people that are hiding loneliness.”

That said, social isolation is a big factor, and has long been a concern for Mind.

“People who are socially isolated are more likely to suffer stress, lower self esteem and sleep problems, and over a long period of time this can cause other problems like depression and anxiety if not resolved,” says Bridget.

Not having a strong support network also makes people less likely to be able to manage or overcome mental health problems if they occur.

But, as Eleanor proves, you don’t have to be totally shut off from society to experience loneliness and its effects.

“After reaching 40, my friends all seem to have disappeared, and I’ve been single for too many years to mention now,” she says.

“There are times when I just can’t find a friend to go to something with and am faced with going alone or wasting a ticket and just hiding away.

“It’s such an awful feeling. I feel as if my existence is pointless, and like I must have become really unpopular and it makes me feel like I must be a horrible person. It’s caused me to become depressed and self critical, and to almost give up on life and shut down emotionally.”

For some, part of the reason loneliness dents their self-worth so greatly, is the shame and sense of failure it can bring, especially in today’s age of social media and photo sharing, where it may look like everybody else on the planet is having a whale of the time with endless numbers of friends.

“It’s very difficult for people to talk about being lonely,” says Bridget. “I think it’s similar to how it used to be for some mental health problems, when people would say, ‘What have you got to be depressed about?’

“Loneliness is quite similar in that respect. Someone might turn round to that lonely person and say, ‘How can you be lonely?’

The impact of loneliness can linger long after a person’s social circumstances have changed.

Karina, 24, became lonely in her late teens after her mum died. Her dad was out of the picture and her older sisters had moved on with their own lives.

Though she’s now engaged, working and has a good circle of friends, Karina says the loneliness she experienced as a teenager had a lasting effect.

“Over the years it manifested in many ways,” she explains. “From depression and anxiety attacks, to losing the ability to forge and maintain friendships.

“When things got tough, my automatic reaction was to push people away as loneliness was the only thing I knew.

“It’s taken me a long time to talk about it. It’s taken me years to find people who are on my wavelength, and it’s also taken me time to learn to trust people and let them into my life.”

Looking back, Karina now thinks that much of her own loneliness was due to her “shutting people out”.

These days, she values her friendships immensely and “works hard to maintain them”. The experience has given her a greater understanding of how loneliness can manifest and affect people in different ways.

“Loneliness is hard,” she says. “It’s human nature to want to surround ourselves with like-minded people we can share out lives with.”

In the last five years alone, The National Lottery has given over £1 billion to projects that support people’s health and wellbeing - many of which serve to combat loneliness and social isolation as much as anything else.

Telling a lonely person to go and join a group can be easier said than done, though.

“Of course it would be good to find something you’re interested in and join a group, but if you’ve been lonely for a long time and feel like you haven’t been speaking to people for a long time, that is probably a step too far and too difficult,” says Bridget.

“So it’s about starting slowly, and it might just be going to the shops and speaking to the cashier, or having a chat with your neighbour.

“Take small steps, and hopefully you’ll be able to build up to joining a group where you’ll meet other people.”

- For support and information about loneliness and other mental health and wellbeing issues, visit www.mind.org.uk

- To find out about Walking 4 Health in your area, visit www.walkingforhealth.org.uk


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