Loneliness may be fast becoming one of the biggest health concerns in the country. One study has shown that there are over 9 million people in the UK who are always or often lonely. The government has even recently appointed a Minister for Loneliness to highlight and tackle the issue. Loneliness doesn’t discriminate between age, sex, class, race or anything else – it’s something anyone can experience at any time in their life. One thing that is common – it can be a very frightening and depressing state in which to be. It can also have serious effects on mental and physical health. In fact, it is thought that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by up to one third.
You might think that loneliness is directly related to being alone – it can be, but not necessarily. It’s still possible to feel lonely in a room full of people if you struggle to form connections with other people and to interact with them. People who are lonely feel isolated, alone, empty, unwanted and unimportant. Loneliness is often hidden, and we may not even be aware that someone is lonely.
Loneliness can be triggered by all sorts of life events and circumstances – bereavement, divorce, moving to a new area or school, loss of a job, working from home, old age, family moving away, a disability, illness (physical and mental), loss of confidence or self-esteem. It’s not necessarily the quantity of social relationships, but the quality of relationships which can determine whether someone feels lonely and isolated. The dawn of ‘social’ media ironically has a lot to answer for in this regard as we gather lots of ‘friends’ but probably interact with them only via a screen and not in person, and some of which we may barely know at all.
Loneliness can be a real issue later in life, as people may suffer the loss of a life partner and close friends, and families move apart from each other and people lose their traditional support networks. Over 51% of people aged over 75 in the UK live alone; 17% have contact with other people less than once a week and 11% less than once a month.
People who are lonely have a tendency to eat more (often poor diets high in fat), get less exercise, drink more alcohol and to not sleep well. These are all things which can cause premature aging as well as serious health problems. Loneliness can be the cause of depression and in extreme case, lead to suicide. In others, it can go on to cause dementia. It can also increase stress, affect memory capabilities and the ability to make decisions, as well as cause high blood pressure, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and strokes.
It is important to take some action for loneliness before it becomes a bigger issue and develops into a mental health problem, such as depression. If loneliness does develop into depression or anxiety, it may be necessary to seek help from your GP or a mental health professional.
If you are lonely, joining in community activities, taking part in volunteering, engaging in hobbies and activities you enjoy can all help you get out and meet and mix with new people. Some people find a pet a good source of focus and companionship. Taking the dog out for a walk for instance, is also a good way of seeing other people and provides an opportunity to strike up a conversation with others.
There is no magic cure for loneliness or one solution for all, but we can all play our part. A simple ‘hello’ to a neighbour or passing comment on the weather with a stranger, or taking the time for a cup of tea or a five minute phone call with an elderly relative can be all it takes to make a difference in the life of someone who feels lonely.
The following organisations can provide further help and advice on loneliness and how to overcome it: