Loneliness and Mental Health
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness – an apt focus given the social disruption many of us have experienced over the past 25 months.
The Mental Health Foundation have just released their latest publication (Loneliness and Mental Health) which shows just how the past two years of lockdown, anxiety about the pandemic, and rising living costs have all taken their toll on mental health in our communities – and how loneliness plays into that bigger picture.
While loneliness is not a mental health condition, it does have a significant impact on our mental health. Loneliness is complex set of emotions that we all experience from time to time. It actually plays a useful role. In the same way that hunger is a response that drives us to find and consume food, loneliness is a response that encourages us to seek out companionship and community. We are a deeply social species. Throughout history, the strength of our social ties has always played a big role in our ability to survive and thrive.
But what happens if those feelings of loneliness are prolonged, or go unsatisfied for a long time? Or if we are already experiencing other problems – such as poor physical health, losing or lacking work, bereavement or mental health issues?
Many people will have experienced some or all of these challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. When our relationships are diminished or disrupted, there is a negative impact on us at all levels – impacting on our physical and mental health.
Being lonely for a long time can lead to a negative psychological spiral. This makes it harder to for us to trust and connect with other people, which in turn can lead to avoiding connect social situations, reinforcing isolation and loneliness.
Why is loneliness important?
As well as the impact it has on individual, loneliness has broader implications for our communities and society. People who are lonely are more likely to visit the GP more often, have longer stays in hospital and are more likely to enter residential care and suffer from long term health issues such as diabetes, depression and stress.
How do we tackle loneliness?
While loneliness is experienced differently by each individual, it is best addressed by us coming together as communities.
As communities, we can take action to help remove some of the obstacles people may face in creating create and sustaining connections. These include practical barriers to socialising (by providing support for carers or community transport schemes), structural issues in society (campaigning to prevent discrimination and prejudice) and psychological barriers which can build up over time (services that help people overcome a loss of confidence or social anxiety).
What does this mean for the VCSE sector?
Our sector plays a crucial role in tackling this issue – both directly through the services and support offered directly to people experiencing the kind of situations that can make loneliness worse, and also by the way we work – through the energy and passion of volunteers, and being physically rooted in communities – where people are. The sector offers more personalised responses: rather than someone simply being a ‘service user’, they are more likely to be seen as a whole person.
As a sector, we should work to maintain that focus on the whole person. For example:
- someone experiencing loneliness for a long time is likely to lack confidence and sometimes the social skills to connect effectively with others at your events or activities. A solution can be spend some time looking at how people are welcomed into the group and encouraged back.
- if someone is coming to your organisation because they have lost their job, this is an opportunity to find out how that has affected their relationships and social connections. Signposting support to find ways to reconnect and strengthen their relationships will be as important in getting the skills and support to find another job.
- for those with existing mental health challenges, an acknowledgement that they are not alone
- thinking about improving access to digital platforms when moving from in person to remote delivery.
Identifying our impact
Making an impact on loneliness may not be the primary aim of your work. But it will probably be something you are making a difference on just by doing the work you do in your community. As a sector, we all need to get better at measuring our impact in this area. With local and national priorities and strategies on reducing long-term loneliness, the voice of the VCSE sector and the people we work with needs to be listened to in designing and commissioning services so that they create and foster connection and don’t inadvertently diminish it.
We have collected some useful reading below for organisations interested in making more of a visible impact on loneliness in your everyday work.
Follow the following links to additional resources…