This year, the Mental Health Foundation has chosen loneliness as the topic for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022. That’s because the last few years of living through covid have taken its toll on everyone’s mental health, with loneliness playing a big part in that.
Unfortunately, current evidence shows that industrialised societies are seeing a fall in the quantity and/or quality of social relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton, 2010). This article seeks to change that trend.
Pervious Mental Health Awareness Week topics
If you’d like to check out my pervious Mental Health Awareness Week articles, then just click the titles that interest you below:
What Is Loneliness?
The Mental Health Foundation kindly added an excellent description of what being lonely is in their ‘A Student Guide to Loneliness’ article. You can find that guide by clicking here.
Loneliness is when you feel alone, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually alone, because you can feel lonely in a crowded room. I know I’ve felt that was many a time in my life. Sometimes I’ve been out with friends and surrounded by people who know my name, but still felt a deep loneliness that burned in my soul.
Feeling lonely differs from social isolation, which measures the size of a person’s social network. That’s because the size of your social network, and thus how socially isolated you are, doesn’t mean you feel lonely. Having a small social network doesn’t account for how you interact with those that are in it, thus ignoring the quality of that network.
You could have a hundred friends in your social network, but rarely see any of them, or you could have five and see them every day. The former might mean you’ll feel more lonely than the person with the smaller network of friends.
In short, loneliness is the feeling of being lonely, and not physically being on your own.
Why Is Loneliness An Important Topic To Talk About?
The reason that loneliness is an important topic to talk about is because of the effect it can have on our wellbeing. Having people in our lives who we can talk to, to confide in, and who we can hang out with provides us with resilience to manage the stresses of life.
A meta-analytic review of 148 studies (308,849 participants) by Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton (2010) found there was a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships. This makes loneliness a comparable risk factor to traditional ones, like smoking on our morality. Thus, the strength of our social connections to others’ works as a risk reduction strategy, allowing you to live longer.
Support for this comes from Ditzen et al. (2008), who found that having strong social support can work as a buffer to stress and work as a stress regulator. Therefore, the better your attachment to your friends and family, and the more you see them, the better you’ll be able to handle stress. However, this study was only conducted on men, so it might not be generalisable to women, meaning it needs a followup study using female participants.
Another study, this time by Leung, Kier, Fung, Fung, and Sproule (2013), found that time spent with friends, having a strong social network, and relatives we feel close to positively affects our sense of happiness. This just goes to show how important having good relationships is for us as a social animal.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it reminded us of our need for each other. They found that feelings of loneliness were almost three times that of pre-pandemic levels.
During the many lockdowns and other restrictions, a lot of us lost contact with the people in our lives. I know I wasn’t able to see my partner for several months at the start of the pandemic in the UK. For my partner, they really struggled with the isolation that caused, whereas for me, I was perfectly fine with it.
People react differently to losing their social network lifelines, because we’re all different. Thus, certain people and groups of people experienced loneliness to different degrees. The pandemic was no different. If anything, it turbo charged that difference.
When we were in lockdown and because of the UK government’s terrible handling of the pandemic, older people, especially those in retirement homes, experienced more loneliness as they couldn’t see anyone for months on end. A lot of older people struggle with technology and lacked the ability to access video calls.
Also, people shielding became more isolated during the pandemic. Many people have been shielding the whole time, in part, because of governments dropping all the restrictions. The unfortunate consequences of this is that it has made it too dangerous for some to leave their homes. My mum, who was left disabled after getting cancer, had to shield alone for almost the entire pandemic, only leaving her home after getting all her vaccinations.
It’s been a tough few years, and I think we’ve all had a dose of loneliness because of it. But now we can start doing more to tackle loneliness for ourselves and others.
Abuse And Loneliness
One of the most important things about raising awareness about loneliness is how unhealthy and healthy relationships can affect it. The Mental Health Foundation (2016) sort to do this by warning us about the consequences of toxic relationships.
As I outlined in my pervious article, ‘How To Handle Toxic Family Members‘, having to deal with toxic family members or just living in a toxic environment will affect us negatively. I know it did for me. From the emotional neglect from my mum to the unending racist abuse from my peers throughout my childhood, I was left with a lot of psychological damage that I’m still trying to manage to this day.
One of the key aspects of domestic abuse is to isolate the person so they can have more control over that person. This can often happen in bullying at school too, as the bully gets their peers to abandon their the person being bullied.
How To Reduce Loneliness
Do nice things for others
As part of my ‘What To Do If You’re Lonely On Valentine’s Day‘ article, I wrote a few tips on feeling lonely on Valentine’s Day that can be repurposed here. One of those is to do nice things for people. Doing something nice for others is a good way to help people feel less alone and a good way to make connections with other people.
This could mean doing something nice for your neighbours or even volunteering. I met one of my good friends while volunteering at a substance abuse charity.
Returning to old hobbies or starting new ones can be a good way to meet new people and make friends or to get current friends into your hobby. Pre-pandemic I used to go ballroom dancing with my partner and a few friends, then we’d got get dinner and have a few drinks. It was a great excuse to get us out and socialise with each other every week.
Anytime is a good time to work on building or maintaining your social networks. You can do this by engaging in hobbies or just reaching out to your friends for a chat. Don’t succumb to the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
Quality over quantity
As the Mental Health Foundation (2016) said, the evidence concludes that it is better to have a few great friends or family members than many more distant relationships. Quality beats quantity. Therefore, focus on establishing good quality friends and not just making an enormous network of friends who are more like acquaintances.
Remember what I said in ‘Alcohol And Relationships: Do You Need Alcohol To Socialise?‘? Not everyone will want to go to the pub to socialise and you shouldn’t shame people for not drinking. So when you go out and reconnect with your social network as the pandemic appears to be past its worse, remember to consider and suggest sober socialising options. That way, everyone can be included.
It’s all well and good meeting up with people and socialising, but don’t forget to engage in some real talk and not just surface talk and banter. Like I said in my ‘How To Always Be There For A Friend: #BeTheMateYoudWant‘ article, how can your loved ones know how to help you if they don’t know what’s going on, and vice versa?
These come curtesy of my article where I asked Twitter for their best advice on maintaining a relationship, which you can find by clicking here. Some of the tips suggested will help you here with reconnecting with your social network.
- Being honest about how you feel, rather than just saying you’re fine when you’re not.
- Respect everyone’s boundaries.
- Be patient, as it may take a while for some members of your social network to feel comfortable socialising. Also, a lot has happened over the last few years, so they might be struggling. Remember, the cost of living has significantly increased lately too.
- Open communication is good for all relationships, but you won’t be able to build any relationship if you’re not able to talk to each other.
- Do activities together, like I said when I talked about hobbies.
- Practice forgiveness and acceptance when it’s called for. But remember, forgiveness might not always be in your best interest if the other person has been abusive.
- Be supportive when you feel you’re able to. You don’t have to sacrifice your mental wellbeing for others, but if you’re able to help when someone needs it, do it.
Loneliness can be a problem for anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many friends and family members you have. So why not use this Mental Health Awareness Week to reach out to friends old and new and have a chat? Not only will it be good for your wellbeing, it’ll also be good for theirs. Win-win.
Reducing loneliness is a major step towards a mentally healthy society, according to the Mental Health Foundation, and who doesn’t want that?
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with loneliness and who you’ll be reaching out to this Mental Health Awareness Week in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Ditzen, B., Schmidt, S., Strauss, B., Nater, U. M., Ehlert, U., & Heinrichs, M. (2008). Adult attachment and social support interact to reduce psychological but not cortisol responses to stress. Journal of psychosomatic research, 64(5), 479-486. Retrieved from https://www.zora.uzh.ch/id/eprint/5410/2/Ditzen-JPR_accepted_MS_2008V.pdf and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022399907004709.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1093&context=facpub, and https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/facpub/94.
Leung, A., Kier, C., Fung, T., Fung, L., & Sproule, R. (2013). Searching for happiness: The importance of social capital. In The exploration of happiness (pp. 247-267). Springer, Dordrecht. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ambrose-Leung/publication/260714647_Happiness_and_Social_Capital/links/5b255fafa6fdcc697469523f/Happiness-and-Social-Capital.pdf and https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-007-5702-8_13.
Mental Health Foundation. (2016). Relationships in the 21st Century. London: Mental Health Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/Relationships-in-21st-century-forgotten-foundation-mental-health-wellbeing-full-may-2016.pdf.