“As a topic, loneliness is a bit taboo… It can take a great deal of courage to stand up and admit to feeling isolated.”
(Aimee Foster, The Early Hour)
Fun in the sun
As I stop for a minute to take stock of the last month or so, I realise it’s actually been quite a fun, busy few weeks: finding ourselves at the tail end of summer, BBQ season has been in full swing here in our corner of Mexico, and the invitations to gatherings, birthday parties and playdates for the kids have not been in short supply. For a good few weeks now, I’ve been winding down on Sunday evenings with a Netflix series in bed with le husband, kids a-snoozing soundly in the room next door; all four of us wiped out from a busy weekend of activities chock-a-block with familiar faces, fresh air and hustle bustle. Wrapping up a week in this way – ie. basking in some much-needed downtime after back-to-back activities spent in the company of chums and companions – has brought feelings of happiness and contentment, which, overall, have prompted me to feel pretty happy with my lot.
But things have not always been this way. Far from it, in fact. And I’m here to suggest that what I have found to be the polar opposite of contentment – anxiety, frustration, sadness and that nagging sensation that ‘something’s missing’, amongst a whole host of similarly down-at-heel sentiments – can be neatly wrapped up in one overarching, simple word. It’s a word which conveys a basic human emotion, and yet one which gets a bad press – or oftentimes very little press at all within our social circles, for fear of the negative judgment that might ensue.
Loneliness – the elephant in the room, or the ‘last taboo’, as aptly described by the author quoted above, in reference to her experience of life as a new Mum – has affected, or will affect, all of us at one stage or another in life. And it’s time we started talking about it.
Loneliness at a glance
Having lived abroad for the best part of 14 years, I’m no stranger to uprooting from the place I call ‘home’, packing up my material possessions and bidding a sad farewell to friends and – the very hardest part of all – to family. Starting from scratch in every town, city or country I’ve ever lived in around the world is one of the few things which has not, in my experience, gotten much easier with practice. Granted, I’ve come to learn the tricks of the trade in terms of online forums or practical ways to get out and meet new people, but these don’t detract from the emotional labour required to build meaningful, lasting relationships – particularly when language and cultural barriers can also come into play. Without close friends to kick back with on those trickier days when all the newness is simply overwhelming, or when the sense of adventure becomes diluted by the sheer hard work of having to set up every single element of life admin from scratch, the predominant feeling on many an occasion throughout these experiences has often been, if I’m honest, one of loneliness.
Growing up in a single-parent household; seeing dear relatives struggle to adapt to life with Alzheimer’s disease; hearing tales of bullying and ostracism among kids as young as six, and witnessing migrants from Central America bear the relentless blazing Mexican sun as they stop passing traffic in the road in the quest for food and water… These are a mere handful of the personal experiences that have taught me that, regardless of age, gender, nationality, or socioeconomic status, loneliness can affect each and every one of us at some stage in our lives. Loneliness – the ‘global epidemic’ – is a phenomenon on the rise, and one that’s fast proving to have a major impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.
Digging deeper: Loneliness in the spotlight
“Loneliness as bad for health as long-term illness” and “Loneliness Is As Bad For Your Health As Smoking 15 Cigarettes A Day” (an article founded on the findings of this paper) feature among the headlines highlighting the psychological and physical effects of social exclusion and isolation – not just in older people, but indeed in people of all ages and backgrounds. It has been reported that some nine million British people feel lonely – and with the number of UK households containing just one person “predicted to increase by another two million over the next decade or so,” it’s a problem that’s not likely to disappear any time soon.
Sorry, guys, all a bit doom and gloom, right? Well, at first glance, yes. The statistics and the reality on the ground do not a pretty picture make. But, as an aspiring glass-half-full kinda gal (very much a work in progress), how about we try turning this thing on its head, and looking at the good stuff… What initiatives are underway to tackle this problem at local, regional or even national level? And what opportunities are available for us, as busy but concerned citizens, to step in, step up, and make a real, lasting change in the lives of people who need that extra bit of support?
Challenges and changemakers
Thankfully, the answer here is: quite a lot, as it goes. For starters, thanks to a few key, inspirational thought leaders in decision-making circles, waves are being made to ensure that the issue of loneliness is finally getting both the attention and the credibility it deserves, not least through a firm foothold on the UK political agenda.
Following the launch of a cross-party ‘Commission on Loneliness’ established by Jo Cox (for any non-Brit readers, Jo was the Labour party MP who was murdered at the age of 41 by a right-wing extremist in 2016), and in response to the Commission’s eminent report in 2017, the UK government announced, in January 2018, the appointment of the world’s first ever Loneliness Minister, encharged with developing policies on the subject.
To bolster this government initiative, which intends to honour and build on Jo’s legacy (Jo passionately advocated for the need to address the problem of loneliness, amongst a host of other issues affecting marginalised and vulnerable groups), a £20 million fund has been established to enable the government and charities to work together as part of a broader, nation-wide strategy to pinpoint opportunities to combat the “generational challenge.”
Whilst further details of the strategy are to be rolled out later this year (regular updates are available via the UK-wide Campaign to End Loneliness and its sister campaign, Be More Us), there’s no need for the rest of us to rest on our laurels as we wait for the political bigwigs to lay bare their recommendations. Indeed, as highlighted by the Commission’s report: “Tackling loneliness is a generational challenge that can only be met by concerted action by everyone – governments, employers, businesses, civil society organisations, families, communities and individuals all have a role to play….Working together we can make a difference,” the Commission urges.
Shifting sands and a glimmer of hope
And it’s this ‘working together’ that gives me a point, or an underlying mission, if you will, for this blog. In motherhood circles and online fora, post-natal depression – and loneliness as an integral element of PND – are topics which seem to be gaining increasing attention in the public sphere, prompting women to come together and speak out about their struggles in a guilt- and shame-free environment. This shift in attitude – and particularly the removal of the ‘taboo’ previously surrounding discussions on loneliness – is a huge step forward. But let’s remember that we, as young(ish, in my case!) mothers, are not alone in this struggle. If we stop to look beyond our immediate circle and tight-knit social structures, I suspect many of us might be able to pinpoint a few others around us – be they friends, elderly relatives, colleagues or neighbours – who, albeit it under different circumstances, are experiencing similar feelings of isolation and loneliness as the rest of us.
Raising a glass to community and connection
These interlinkages paint a reality that surely begs the question: what could we achieve, if we came together, united in our struggles – not only for our own good, but for the greater good of society at large? If, in our respective lonely ranks, we put our heads together – or even just committed to occasionally raising a glass together – in the name of community, social connection, wellbeing and happiness? Don’t you think great strides could be made? Perhaps that glass-half-full project I mentioned earlier is going better than I realised, but right now, I’ll admit to feeling optimistic that the future – a future in which we stand together, as a community-focused force to be reckoned with – is tinged with something akin to hope and opportunity for change.
If you’re still reading this (Gawd bless yer), and if any of the above has struck a chord with you, I’d love it if you’d join me over the next few weeks and months as I work to uncover some of the key challenges experienced by people from all walks of life facing loneliness. It’d also be just ace if you’d stick around to learn about – and share your own experiences of – community-focused initiatives which aim to tackle loneliness at its source, in the name of harnessing a healthier, happier society.
Brace yourself, loneliness… We’re coming at you from all quarters!