Loneliness used to be associated with older people. The elderly can often live alone after losing a spouse, mothers can become ‘empty nesters’ when their children grow up and leave home. But one of the new findings from the pandemic is just how susceptible young people, aged between 16-24, are to loneliness.
Loneliness has serious implications on all age groups, for mental and physical well-being. Raising awareness of this issue generates discussion, the idea is to encourage people to speak about it openly and to recognise that it is a growing problem, as the government acknowledged as far back as 2018, when it set out a strategy for loneliness.
The true impact of the pandemic, with businesses closing, more people working from home, a move to online shopping, among other changes, is yet to be felt. As well as young people, those at greater risk of loneliness include veterans, single parents, the physically and mentally ill, the digitally excluded, carers, marginalised groups – whether through race, religion, or sexuality –, and therapists themselves.
In primitive society, social connection was literally about life or death. Human beings needed one another for survival to fight off invaders and keep their families and folk fed, watered and safe. More than ever, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of connection and of meaningful social relationships.
But there is another side to the coin. In his classic work ‘Solitude’, psychiatrist Anthony Storr argued that the capacity to be alone is a sign of emotional maturity. Indeed spiritual traditions emphasise periods of being alone to help awaken to a state of greater wholeness. Loneliness may therefore be an opportunity to be explored rather than a problem to be fixed, as with skilled help, a client learns to tolerate being alone with themselves. But being alone and feeling lonely is where the difference lies. We can find personal wholeness when we spend time by ourselves, but when we feel isolated, we lose our sense of belonging and security that our community provides. This can lead to further mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, addictions and even suicidal thoughts.
Greater awareness of the implications of loneliness is an important step forward in finding sustainable solutions in these changing times.
Although everyone experiences it differently, most of us feel lonely from time to time. One of the greatest challenges, and perhaps the one that therapy can best address, is the stigma and the shame that goes with loneliness. This is often expressed with the phrase ‘there must be something wrong with me’.
A therapist can normalise loneliness as an experience rather than a permanent condition that defines a person, and offer the opportunity for a client to connect in a safe, non-judgemental and confidential space. Learning to trust and to explore deeper feelings and vulnerabilities can help clients work out for themselves what they need to do to feel more connected in life both to themselves and to others.
Psychotherapy can offer a safe space to explore your feelings. You can look for an accredited therapist on the UKCP website.
You can also find support by contacting:
In an emergency, call: 999
NHS (England), call: 111
NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47
The Samaritans 24-hour helpline, call: 116 123