Mental Health Awareness Week – Monday 9 May to Sunday 15 May 2022 – Loneliness
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is the unwelcome feeling of a gap between the social connections we want and the ones we have (Perlman & Peplau 1981). It is something which we all feel and experience at some point in our lives, but our experiences will differ in terms of how often we feel lonely, how long the feeling lasts for and how intense it is. If it is short lived, it can even be helpful as it can push us and be the motivation we need to go and do something and interact with our peers. When loneliness becomes severe and chronic, it can cause harm and affects our social interactions.
Loneliness is often described as an unwelcome negative feeling. It is not a mental health condition by itself but it is experienced with feelings such as anxiety, distress, emptiness, sadness and feeling like you are not being understood by others. Loneliness affects behaviour; a person can withdraw, appear quiet and does not want to open up, are less likely to go out and socialise and so on. Loneliness is also commonly associated with older age; an elderly person who is widowed for example, but it can affect people of all ages and at varying points within our lives.
What Causes Loneliness
There are many reasons why people can feel lonely and many factors that can cause it. The life events and transitions that we go through is a key risk factor in causing loneliness, it is when our expectations do not match our experience. For example, loneliness can occur in young people because of starting a new school or university; their expectation is of a new, exciting chapter, but instead their lived experience might be nerve-wracking as they struggle to establish new friendships. Going through this stage of growing up is a tricky time as it is a point where we try to build social connections, but we also lose friendships and relationships at this time as well. New parenthood can be a cause of loneliness as they lose some of their own personal time whilst focusing on their child, and therefore not having social interactions with people. Grief and bereavement are also commonly known to be a cause of loneliness as we struggle to adjust to a life without our loved one.
Other risk factors that can cause loneliness include: socioeconomic status and income, health factors (an illness which stops you leaving your house as much), structural factors (such as limited transport links) and even digital technology (whilst this may have benefitted the vast majority during the pandemic, others were left feeling confused on how it all worked and they missed the personal connection).
It is important to highlight that people can feel lonely even if they have people and support networks around. Loneliness is a feeling that is not solely dependent on external factors like access to people or activities.
Covid 19 Pandemic has been an unprecedented, unique experience and it is clear to see why this caused a surge in people feeling lonely. It affected children (they were not able to go to school and see their friends or go to the park), it affected those of work age who had to work from home (this removed the day-to-day social interaction that work provided) and it affected the elder generation (no visitors allowed into hospitals or care homes for example).
In a poll conducted by YouGov, the UK’s leading children’s charity, it was found that at least a third of young people aged 8-24 years had experienced an increase in mental health and emotional wellbeing difficulties including worry and loneliness. 7.2% of adults also reported feelings of loneliness during the pandemic period of October 2020-February 2021 (Campaign to end loneliness).
Supporting Those Who Feel Lonely
Reducing loneliness is a major step towards a mentally healthy society and so it is important to know to how to support those who feel lonely.
The MECC approach – Making Every Contact Count – is something we can all utilise. It is about being aware of the positive difference that we can make to someone’s physical and mental health, just by using the art of conversation. When we are speaking with one another, we should be curious and genuinely interested as this allows people to be open and engage more. Provide a listening ear. Don’t feel the need to fix the ‘problem’ or argue why someone can’t be feeling lonely. Listen and show empathy.
Social Prescribing – This is a service which the NHS adopts, and its method is to engage in conversation with a person who is feeling lonely and assist them with possible solutions to combat their own loneliness. For example, you could signpost people to social dining events as a chance to meet new people.
Befriending – Befriending someone and meeting them for a cup of tea and chat can make a big difference to how they feel. Pay attention to the person, show you are listening, empathise with them and always follow up afterwards as this will show you care and appreciate the importance of what you spoke about. As expected, good relationships with peers are correlated with a decreased risk of reporting loneliness.
Social connections are imperative to help and support loneliness. For more information, please visit: