Across cultures and generations, one of the core human needs is connection. We thrive through interaction with others and the sense of belonging and contributing to a collective. When we have insufficient meaningful connections, the result is loneliness.
The focus of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 is loneliness, so let’s explore the causes, outcomes and ways in which individuals and organisations can tackle it.
Who is Affected by Loneliness?
Many of us experienced loneliness during the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Social isolation kept us apart from many of the important people in our lives. We got to understand how it felt to be separated from others and how this can impact our well-being.
In the first lockdown, Office of National Statistics (ONS) data revealed that 5% of the UK adult population (2.6million people) reported often or always feeling lonely. Surprisingly, this was unchanged from pre-lockdown figures. Rates did rise to 7.2% in the winter lockdown (October 2020 and February 2021).
Although anyone can experience loneliness, levels are higher in rural parts of the country or regions with a higher density of young people and/or unemployment.
What is interesting is that loneliness can be experienced when we are surrounded by others. Sometimes a crowded room is where we feel it most strongly because being among people doesn’t necessarily equate to strong connections. Different views, language, attitudes and life experiences can emphasise the fact that we don’t fit in, that we are disconnected.
How does Loneliness Impact Wellbeing?
Loneliness has been equated to both obesity and cigarette smoking in terms of its impact on mental and physical health. It is therefore viewed as a major public health concern, yet support for loneliness is limited.
The Campaign to End Loneliness has collated data on the threats to health of not feeling connected with others. These include an increased risk of developing depression, dementia and cardiovascular conditions. Overall, it identifies that loneliness increases premature mortality by 26%.
People who felt lonely were more likely to be reliant on care services; from GP visits to hospitalisation, as they were less able to manage their physical and mental health. The symptoms of loneliness can increase absenteeism from work, school, university as well as avoidance of activities that aid well-being.
Is there a Link Between Loneliness & Suicide?
Feeling isolated means that you lack the support network that often plays a crucial role in helping you cope with the challenges of life. Believing that you have no one to talk to, that no one will understand you or share your perspective can make you feel devalued, less important than others and lack hope.
Samaritans’ research from 2019 highlighted that loneliness contributed to suicidal thoughts in 16-24-year-olds. It identified that in 28% of their support calls with young people who had suicidal thoughts, loneliness and isolation were mentioned.
A research paper published on Science Direct also explored the correlation between loneliness and suicide. They concluded that loneliness increased the risk of hospitalisation from self-harm. There was also a modest increase in suicide risk of men living alone, but this wasn’t a factor identified as an issue for women.
The Importance of Meaningful Relationships
It is widely accepted that loneliness is affecting around 5% of the population and impacts physical and mental health. To address this, individuals and organisations need to create more opportunities for individuals to build meaningful connections.
These opportunities have to take into account the fact that we are all individuals, with different interests, responsibilities and restrictions. In addition to the Christmas party and other social events, they might include:
- Encouraging staff to get involved in volunteer projects
- Scheduling group creative thinking and planning sessions into the calendar
- Holding a weekly lunchtime walking group
- Pinning current information about local special interest groups on noticeboards e.g. art centre, sports centre and community centre programmes
- Signing up for a team challenge – soapbox derby, cycle ride, photographic competition etc that brings people together
It is also a case of taking notice of who seems removed from others. Who takes lunch alone, holds back in group activities and keeps themselves to themselves? Don’t assume that being alone means someone is lonely, however, invite them to join you and make an effort to strike up a conversation.
The outcome of these activities could be a healthier, happier workforce with lower absenteeism rates.
Sources of Support for Those Experiencing Loneliness
If someone tells you that they are lonely, you might wish to signpost them to one of the following resources.
- The Campaign to End Loneliness website includes useful links: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/helpful-links/
- Side by Side is an online community which may help those who can’t easily get out to meet others: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/side-by-side-our-online-community/
- National befriending networks have been set up across the country – find your local one here: https://www.befriending.co.uk/directory/
Simply taking the time to listen and talk with a colleague, relation, neighbour or customer could make a difference. Who could you connect with this Mental Health Awareness Week?