Is loneliness the last mental health taboo?

When was the last time you said that to someone? A friend, a family member, maybe a work colleague. When asked, how are you feeling- instead of ‘fine, thanks,’ have you ever felt able to be honest and say; I feel lonely?
“I feel lonely.”

Over the last few years, the stigma around mental health has been gradually eroding, as speaking openly about our anxiety, OCD and depression has become more commonplace – even encouraged. But loneliness? Something about it sticks in our throat. It’s as if we can’t quite admit to it, as though it is a badge of shame, some sort of societal failure….

Yet in 2020, loneliness has become a fundamental issue, as we are siloed away from friends and family members, as many of us are working from home alone, as single people are left without any recourse- their chances of meeting someone made actually illegal.

It is little wonder that the Office of National Statistics revealed, in a study undertaken to assess the mental health impact of the pandemic, that between April and May this year 5% of people in Great Britain (2.6 million adults) reported that they felt lonely “often” or “always.” Of those asked, 30.9% (7.4 million adults) reported their well-being had been affected through their feeling lonely in the past seven days.Working-age adults living alone were more likely to report loneliness both “often or always” and over the past seven days than the average adult; this was also the case for those in “bad” or “very bad” health, in rented accommodation, or who were either single, or divorced, separated or a former or separated civil partner.

So maybe it’s finally time we started talking about loneliness…

“This past year has given people a sense of permission to speak about their loneliness;” says Award winning Psychologist Natasha Tiwari, “The lockdowns and isolation has opened a space where it feels safe to speak about loneliness without feeling judged, because it’s easy to see that if you’re suffering with feeling lonely, you definitely are not the only one. Pre Covid-19, I’m not sure it felt so easy, and many were hiding their loneliness away, and masking how they really felt, even to their nearest and dearest.”

This may especially be true for young people. Whilst loneliness in the elderly is a much discussed tragedy of our society, it is perhaps harder to open up at a time in your life when the world expects you to be gregarious and constantly having fun – especially on social media.

“I think we haven’t found a way of comfortably articulating loneliness – or even understanding/ comprehending it – especially in a hyper connected, digital world,” explains Jo Hardy, head of services for Gingerbread, the single parent charity, “People are super connected on social media, but more lonely than ever before. Sometimes we self judge success based on social connections, so yes people feel like they have failed as human beings if they are lonely.”

Yet modern tech has produced one of the best loneliness-busing advancements for young people; the social platform Meetup. Think of it like Tinder for communities, friends and shared interests.

“Unlike other social media platforms, Meetup has a long history of using technology to get people off technology (pre Covid) to meet in person,” explains CEO David Siegel, “We are the only social media platform designed to help people be more social in real life. In fact we know of therapists that have recommended Meetup to help patients build social connections and feel happier. There are so many studies on how strong social networks help people live longer, happier lives and that we are playing a part in that, we are thrilled.”

“Eighteen years after its founding, Meetup remains steadfast to its mission of fostering human connections. Prior to the pandemic, nearly all Meetup events were held in person. In March of 2020 we began to encourage online Meetup events as a way to keep people connected while they needed it most,” David continues, “Already, over 10 million people have participated in more than 1.5 million online Meetup events.”

The team behind Meetup are aware that their platform has never been more needed than during the pandemic.

“The loneliness epidemic was terrifying even before the pandemic. Over 42% of people said that they felt lonely regularly, and that has increased in 2020,” says David.

“Studies show that the simple act of trying something new releases oxytocin in the brain and makes you feel good. We have heard from many Meetup members and Meetup event organizers how Meetup helped them feel less lonely. One user who said he was very lonely for a decade. He would rarely get to see friends and it was hard to find places to make new friends. He joined Meetup in 2011 and began attending a local board game Meetup event. He says that changed his life for the better. Eventually, he decided to start his own Meetup group in 2014. Soon after, he had more friends than he ever dreamed he would have and he says that his feelings of loneliness went away and has stayed away.”

There are, of course, certain sectors of society who have always felt isolated even before the pandemic. One of these is young single mothers.

“I also think single parents can feel a huge burden around perceived obligations to connect and be social,” explains Jo Hardy, “There are stereotypes and social expectations around having a wide group of friends, being connected and actively engaged socially, dating (!), when actually there are times when single parents are in survival mode and simply exhausted/ burnt out.”

Jo feels that single parents have always felt isolated, and that the pandemic has only sharpened this sense. Yet she hopes it has also increased society’s awareness of this.

“Everyone has struggled in the pandemic, and I think people are much more able to comprehend now, how much harder it would be – if you are doing all of this alone,” she says, “There has been more empathy and kindness – and people like Marcus Rashford really helping people understand the levels of desperation – like putting a meal on the table each day, keeping a roof over their heads, doing a good enough job of providing for their kids. This past year has shown that places like Gingerbread need more support, so we can roll out our peer support offer. It has shown that employers really can be genuinely flexible, that the government should increase child benefits and maintain the recent increase to Universal Credit, that we need new initiatives to increase access to affordable childcare.”

And if you find yourself feeling lonely?

“There are things you can do with ease, that may begin to alleviate these painful feelings,” says Natasha, “For a start, don’t blame yourself or punish yourself for these feelings. Find comfort where you can, that may be in simple things such as spending time in nature, or doing things you enjoy. Connect with your friends, even those you’ve fallen out of contact with. Don’t be self-conscious: they’ll be thrilled to hear from you. Sink into your sense of creativity, whatever that may mean to you.”

“And all this said, remember that life isn’t always fun, and that this is a time which will pass,” she adds, “Don’t resist the feelings you’re having: it’ll just exacerbate it. Notice that you’re not enjoying the feeling, invite some self compassion into your life as a way to relieve the painful feelings of being alone. If you’re not used to this kind of practice, it can seem far-fetched, but with time will feel more natural, and most importantly, healing.”

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