Mental Health Awareness week will take place from 9th-15th May 2022, and this year’s theme for the week is loneliness. Never before has it been more important to give mental ill health the time it deserves and break down the stigmas associated with this devastating and destructive illness that so many of us suffer with.
As many people will be aware, one of the big contributing factors to mental ill heath these days is loneliness. We know that loneliness is affecting more and more of us in the UK and has had a huge impact on our mental health, not least because of the pandemic and ongoing lockdowns we have all experienced.
We know that our connection to other people and our community is paramount to protecting our mental health, and as such, we all need to work together to find better ways to tackle loneliness, both within ourselves and within others. Because reducing loneliness is a major step towards to more healthy society.
Let’s start by looking at the data and the true extent of the issue…
• 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England.
• 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year.
• 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
• 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
• Loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 26%.
• Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
• Loneliness is worse for you than obesity.
• Loneliness and social isolation are associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke.
• Loneliness with severe depression is associated with early mortality and loneliness is a risk factor for depression in later life.
*These statistics are taken from the Mental Health Foundation website and The Campaign to End Loneliness.
Loneliness and its impact on our mental health
Loneliness is a normal human feeling, which almost everyone will experience at some point in their lives.
Generally, it presents itself in a feeling of being isolated or disconnected from others. It may also manifest itself as a feeling of not being understood or cared for.
When we are on our own, but don’t want to be, it’s natural for us to feel a bit lonely and sad. We may start thinking in a negative or self-critical way, which can lead to low motivation and social withdrawal. Without active coping strategies, this pattern may continue to make our mood even lower and result in more negative thoughts and avoidance responses. This is what we call the vicious cycle of loneliness.
Vicious Cycle of Loneliness
Ruminating on people we miss
Assuming others don’t want to interact with us
Withdrawing from social contacts
Rejecting invitations, cancelling meetings
Avoiding making/answering phone calls or messages
Avoiding loneliness in our very ‘social’ age
We live in such a social world these days; one where we are always on and always able to communicate with others over social media or connect in via video call. Yet ironically it is easier than ever to feel lonely in this highly social world.
Here are 4 steps to avoid loneliness despite our increased tech connectivity:
1. Identify your personal signs of loneliness and show self-compassion. It’s important to notice and normalise when we feel lonely. This will reduce our tendency to deny or suppress the feeling out of embarrassment or shame. It will also increase our motivation to address this issue. Look at it like this: Loneliness is a bit like feeling hungry and thirsty. Much the same as when our bodies are telling us that we need to eat or drink something, loneliness is a sign that we need to pay attention to the amount of social contact we’re having.
2. Think about the impact of loneliness on your life and your personal needs. Ask yourself if, and indeed how, loneliness has been affecting your life. Has it been impacting your health? Sapping your energy levels? Impacting your appetite or sleep? Is it impacting your concentration? Then identify your personal social needs in terms of format, level, frequency, and style of contact. Some people prefer face to face meetings, but others may like phone calls or online groups to chat. One person may enjoy the excitement of a busy social life, but another person may find it overwhelming or distracting. It would help address your needs better, if you reflect on what you genuinely want and what is missing at that specific moment.
3. Stop scrolling. Avoid mindless scrolling on your phone and especially avoid comparing your social life to others purely through what you see on social media. Next time you are tempted to reach for your phone to go on social media, say to yourself, “stop” and ask yourself these two questions, “Why am I reaching for my phone?” and, “What emotions am I feeling?” Guide yourself into an easy breathing rhythm and allow yourself to feel your emotions for a minute or two, with as much compassion as you can. Switching mindless social media scrolling for a more mindful activity is a quick, yet positive step to avoid feeling isolated in our busy world.
4. Reach out for support. Once you are clear about your unfulfilled social needs, you can start to think about ideas regarding how to fill in these gaps with more concrete action plans. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or speak to a professional. Taking that first step and asking for help is a positive move and demonstrates your strength as an individual. You could also contact your GP or local mental health care services for social prescribing, psychological support and other appropriate treatments.