It's time we spoke about loneliness

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Okay folks, it’s time to talk about mental health again. Today we’re going to be discussing one of the most common and yet stigma-laden topics of all: loneliness.

Lots of people feel lonely. An estimated 20% of the United States population experiences loneliness, and amongst groups prone to social isolation that can be much, much higher. Loneliness isn’t just unpleasant, either; it’s associated with a mortality risk about equal to that of smoking.

But if there’s one thing we don’t like to admit, it’s that we’re lonely.

Loneliness comes with a whole barrel of stigmas associated with it. Saying that you’re lonely can make you feel like a failure, and comes with the real concern that others will feel the same. Loneliness can make you less effective at everything, which means it’s easy to find evidence for your fears.

What’s more, loneliness can have nothing to do with popularity, or number of friends. You can have an active social life and still be lonely. When Stephen Fry battled with depression, he said that loneliness was the worst part:

Lonely? I get invitation cards through the post almost every day. I shall be in the Royal Box at Wimbledon and I have serious and generous offers from friends asking me to join them in the South of France, Italy, Sicily, South Africa, British Columbia, and America this summer. I have two months to start a book before I go off to Broadway for a run of Twelfth Night there.

I can read back that last sentence and see that, bipolar or not, if I’m under treatment and not actually depressed, what the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy, or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.

In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems.

Paradoxically, loneliness can increase social aversion; highly social people will wall themselves up and hide from the world when they’re lonely. Many studies have found that loneliness increases the aversion to close human contact, even when we know that’s what we need. It’s easy to feel one can be a drag, or won’t fit in, or worst of all rejection: that your fear that nobody wants to spend time with you is actually real.

There’s been a lot of studies between social media and loneliness. We know there’s a correlation between loneliness and social media, but we don’t know if there’s causality; it would make sense for lonely people to spend more time in a social medium, even if it can be questioned if that medium provides the sort of close interpersonal interactions that can make a difference to loneliness.

Because this is something with so much stigma associated with it, because this is something that we hate to admit to ourselves (let alone others), I’m going to say this straight: I’m lonely. Not always, not all the time, but often enough. It gets in the way of my work. It turns me into a recluse. It certainly gets in the way of me being the person that I want to be.

And if this comes as a surprise, then I’ve done my hiding well. When I’m socialising with others, I’m usually not lonely. If I’m talking about how I’ve been, then loneliness is the last thing I want to mention, because saying that genuinely makes me feel that I’ve failed. But the moment other people are gone, then more often than not the feeling of loneliness returns, and I’ll hide away from the world as a result.

This is not a cry for help, nor a request for assistance. It is a refusal to remain quiet despite the stigmas we have when discussing mental health. It’s me saying “hey, it’s not just you”, for as much good as that will do.

I’m not going to offer advice, I don’t even think my advice may be worth that much, but I can tell you that loneliness is extremely common as well as extremely hidden. No matter what you may think, you are not alone.

Selected references (if you read any, read the first):

Olien, Jessica. “Loneliness Is Deadly.” Slate, August 23, 2013.

Boomsma, D. I., G. Willemsen, C. V. Dolan, L. C. Hawkley, and J. T. Cacioppo. “Genetic and Environmental Contributions to Loneliness in Adults: The Netherlands Twin Register Study.” Behavior Genetics 35, no. 6 (2005): 745–52.

Cacioppo, John T., and Stephanie Cacioppo. “Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 8, no. 2 (February 1, 2014): 58–72. doi:10.1111/spc3.12087.

Fry, Stephen. “Only The Lonely.” Official Site of Stephen Fry. Accessed September 6, 2015.

Hawkley, Louise C., and John T. Cacioppo. “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine : A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine 40, no. 2 (October 2010). doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8.

Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton. “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review.” PLoS Med 7, no. 7 (July 27, 2010): e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.

Wilson, C., and B. Moulton. “Loneliness among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+.” Prepared by Knowledge Networks and Insight Policy Research. Washington, DC: AAR, 2010.

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