This week (9th-15th May) in the UK is Mental Health Awareness Week, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. This year’s theme is loneliness, with the aim being to raise awareness of the impact of loneliness on our mental health and share practical ways to deal with it.
Many situations can result in loneliness: moving to a new area, starting university, suffering a bereavement, being excluded or bullied by peers, having a baby, living with a disability or mental illness, being in a loveless or abusive relationship, going through a divorce, and many more. But it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Loneliness is very common and one in four adults feel lonely some or all of the time. Though we can’t simply wave a magic wand to change our circumstances, there are some things we can do to cope with loneliness and try to prevent some of the mental health problems that might arise from it.
I’ve Been There
We’ve been asked to share our experience of loneliness on social media and say #IveBeenThere. I’ve decided to share a story that I’ve not told in full to many people, in the hopes it might help someone to feel less alone. It’s going to be a long one, I’m afraid…
The time in my life when I felt most lonely was when I started university. I grew up in a rural area with a close-knit family and a small network of friends. Up until that point, I’d never travelled by myself and had rarely visited cities. I had just gotten into my first serious relationship but I wasn’t too apprehensive about relocating. I was excited to gain some independence, get stuck into my Literature and Philosophy course and meet new people. I’d always found it fairly easy to make friends, so it never crossed my mind that I might struggle to settle there.
Unfortunately, even though most of my flatmates were friendly, we didn’t have a lot in common. They were streetwise- used to partying, dating and drinking. Meanwhile, I was introverted and bookish, my bed still covered with cuddly toys. Next to them, I felt like a child who was way out of her depth. I remember going out clubbing with them during fresher’s week and having a panic attack because I couldn’t find the people I came with and didn’t know where I was. Everything was so loud, big and bright. I suddenly felt very alone and wondered if they would even notice if something happened to me. I ran out into the street and caught a taxi straight back to my flat.
After that, I became more withdrawn and gradually stopped socialising altogether. I ate most of my meals alone in my dorm room and even began to skip lectures. Eventually, even the students who had been friendly toward me stopped checking in on me, and I convinced myself it was because I was so unlikeable. My GP prescribed me anti-depressants and referred me to counselling, both of which helped somewhat, but never addressed the root cause of my loneliness.
I missed my family and boyfriend terribly and came home at the weekends as much as I could afford to. Each time I visited home it was harder and harder to go back to my life of isolation. One weekend, in tears, I begged my mum to let my younger sister come back to Leeds with me, as I just couldn’t take being alone anymore. Thankfully she agreed, and my sister stayed in my dorm room with me for about a week. We went to the cinema and shopping together, and she even tagged along to some of my lectures. Looking back, I think she saved me from having a serious breakdown, or worse.
After lots of long conversations with my boyfriend and family, I finally decided that it wasn’t worth damaging my mental health to finish my degree at a traditional uni. I completed the first year of my course then returned home. Relief flooded through me when my Dad arrived to collect me. But I was also filled with regret and self-loathing. I felt like such a failure for “giving up”, like I had let everyone down. Thoughtless comments from people didn’t help. One former teacher told me I was making a “huge mistake” but of course, she had no idea how close to the edge I had been. It took a long time to get over those feelings and realise that what I did was necessary and actually very brave.
Despite all my fears, everything turned out for the better. I was able to transfer the credits from my first year of uni and complete my degree with the Open University, graduating in 2010 with a first-class honours degree. I’d been able to work part-time while studying and ended up saving thousands of pounds in uni fees as well as gaining valuable experience. My relationship flourished and we moved in together (eventually marrying) and I made lots of new friends through work and hobbies. Since then, my confidence has grown massively and I’m so pleased I made the decision to put my mental health first. Some may judge me for “quitting” but it was absolutely the right decision for me.
Do I still feel lonely sometimes? Of course. I think that’s normal. Recently, I’ve been diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder following my daughter’s Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis. Sometimes it feels like no one else understands what my daughter’s care involves and how our lives have been so irreversibly altered. I can even feel lonely in a room full of people, struggling with anxious thoughts when everyone else seems so relaxed and confident. At these times, I remind myself that I am not alone. Everyone struggles with their mental health at some point in their life, and we are all here to support each other through this crazy rollercoaster called life. The first step to feeling better is asking for help.
If you are feeling lonely or struggling with your mental health, please talk to someone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, a friend, a colleague, a counsellor, a faith leader, your GP or an online acquaintance*, as long as you tell someone that you are hurting. You wouldn’t want someone you knew to suffer in silence, so why would you expect that from yourself? People can’t be there for you if you mask your feelings all the time. When you open up to people you trust, you will find that they are so kind and supportive and will often go out of their way to help you feel safe and welcome. Sometimes they’ll disclose their own struggles that you weren’t even aware of. Always remember that you matter, you are deserving of love and you don’t have to face things alone.
Tips & Resources for Dealing with Loneliness
- If you can, tell someone you trust about how you’re feeling. They would want to know what’s going on so they can help you. If you have no one living nearby, reach out to an old friend over social media or by phone. Even though you might feel awkward, I promise they will be pleased that you contacted them.
- You could also ask your GP to refer you for counselling, register for NHS talking therapy or find local support through Hub of Hope or Mind.
- The Mental Health Foundation have some practical guides for specific groups of people such as students, young parents, education staff and those later in life.
- Young people might benefit from reading Young Minds’ guide “How to Cope with Loneliness” or The Mental Health Foundation’s “Fifteen Things to Do If You’re Lonely“.
- Check out these podcasts: Let’s Talk Mental Health, Loneliness Explored, How to Start Over, Let’s Talk About Loneliness.
- Read these inspirational and moving stories or watch videos of people’s experiences with loneliness from Mind.
- Browse these blog posts on the theme of loneliness: “How to Feel Less Lonely” by Liggy Web,
- Consider joining a social media support group to find others who are coping with the same issues. I’m in a few groups on Facebook for parents of children with T1 Diabetes and for those suffering from chronic tension headaches. It’s a great comfort just to see I’m not the only one going through this.
- Chances are, you’re not the only one in your area who could use a friend. Try reaching out to other people in your community through flyers, a newspaper ad or Nextdoor.co.uk. You might be able to organise a meet-up or become pen-pals.
- Try to get out of the house every day, even if it’s just to take the dog for a quick walk around the block or to read a book in the garden. The longer you stay inside, the harder it can become to get out and mix with people again.
- Keep busy by starting a new hobby or learning a new skill. Alongside practical support, I find art, writing, journaling and blogging helpful. Bonus points if you can share this with online friends through social media. Double bonus points if it gets you out of the house. Look into clubs or interest groups in your area. If you don’t enjoy it, you don’t have to commit, but the distraction may be helpful and you might make some new friends. I joined a choir recently (despite reservations) and it’s done me a world of good.
- Look after your body as well as your mind. I’m kind of a hypocrite to be saying this as I’m extremely bad at the self-care stuff, but if you can get a good amount of sleep, exercise and a balanced diet then it certainly will help to give you the energy to deal with your emotions. Easier said than done, I know!
- Spend time with pets. They provide companionship and are proven to reduce stress levels. If you don’t have a pet, consider adopting a rescue animal from a shelter to give you some company, or perhaps you could volunteer at an animal sanctuary. Make sure you do your research before choosing a new member of the family, though.
Being There for Others
- If someone opens up to you about feeling lonely, listen without judgement first before offering practical advice. They may just wish to talk through their worries and are not necessarily wanting you to provide a solution. Later on, you could invite them along to activities that you think they’d enjoy, but let them get involved at their own pace.
- Welcome newcomers to work or clubs by involving them in discussions and activities, introducing them to others and taking the time to get to know them. It’s hard starting something new when there are cliques to navigate.
- Help to normalise mental health issues and destroy the stigma by sharing your own experiences with others and challenging any myths or rumours that you hear.
- Check in on friends, colleagues and relatives who might be feeling lonely. Many of us already do this for older relatives living alone, but might not think about new parents, empty nesters, single friends or students. Don’t forget that people who seem confident and content on the outside might still be feeling desperately lonely inside.
Do You Need Urgent Help?
If you are in distress and need help now, visit your GP or A&E department as soon as you can, ring 111 (or 999 if in immediate danger) or contact one of the helplines below. Your mental health is just important as your physical health. You won’t be wasting anyone’s time, I promise.
- Samaritans-Call 116 123 – it’s FREE.
- For support in a crisis, Text Shout to 85258.
- Find a local NHS urgent mental health helpline.
- My friends from the US can contact Mental Health America.
Have you ever felt intense loneliness? If so, how did you overcome it?