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Mother Teresa once said that “the most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved”. With a growing awareness of mental health issues entering the collective consciousness, depression and mood disorders are more widely accepted but admitting to feeling lonely? Some say it’s the final taboo.

We live in a digital age where we have never been more connected with the world;information is readily available at our fingertertips and networking opportunities are myriad.  So, why then are more and more people feeling lonely? It’s a paradox, suggests Naoise Kavanagh of Reachout.com an online youth mental service.  Loneliness, she says, creates a downward spiral of negative self-talk and inspires our inner critic – the one that rates our performances in social situations.  “This turns into self-blame about not being able to make a go of it as you witness people who have no problem making friends,” adds Kavanagh, who describes loneliness as a silent plague.

Dr. Mark Rowe agrees, Author of  A Prescription for Happiness: The Ten Commitments to a Happier, Healthier Life. Rowe is a medical doctor and expert on wellbeing wisdom.  He believes that loneliness is a hidden killer.

“It can quite literally cause a broken heart. It has terribly adverse consequences, not just for our emotional health but also for out physical and psychological wellbeing.” As human beings, he contests, we’re heart-centred.  “We’re not just brain activity and KPIs, we’re emotional creatures.  To feel excluded is very bad for your heart health; it can increase the risk of brain degeneration, precipitate dementia and cause early onset Alzheimer’s/”

Loneliness doesn’t discriminate, however, and all ages and demographics can be affected.  Martina, 45, lives outside Limerick and despite being married and the mother of three children, she often feels alone. When her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, Martina initially found it terribly isolating. The difficulties of caring for her son lowered her self-esteem and the quality and volume of her social interactions disintegrated rapidly.  She struggled to explain her son’s behaviour to others who failed to recognise her role as a partner in his journey. “My son and I come as a package.  Not everybody accepts him, and my husband and I learned very early on that friendship is something that’s negotiable.  As a result, a lot of our previous relationships fell by the wayside.  When we’d go out with friends, the first thing out of people’s mouths was ‘Don’t talk about your children.’ But that was my life.”

Single people are equally affected by the scourge of loneliness.  Because people are marrying at a later age, there is a tendency to feel left behind when we haven’t reached the same milestones as our friends.  We compare ourselves to others who appear more connected, successful and mature. When Joanne, 31, broke up with her partner, she started comparing herself to her friends with spouses or families.  Social invitations began to wane.

“When my friends started having families. they stopped going out.  Because I’m the one sitting at home saying: ‘Let’s do something,’ it adds to the loneliness.  People presumed I was out living the high life but a lot of the time I was sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring.  I really got stuck in a rut.  I’d look at my mates off on spa weekends with their partners and it was really tough.”

Paula Cocozza’s debut novel How to Be Human deals with the mental disintegration of protagonist Mary after the breakdown of her relationship.  It was the observation of “social brokenness” that drove Cocozza to tell this story, which proves particularly timely in the wake of a new study that found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe.

“I started thinking about humans – their desperation and longing for a connection with the world. You can find contact in all kinds of small and trivial moments and feel that you’re exchanging nothing.” Losing the connection with one’s friends can be the sign of a toxic relationship, however, as in Mary’s case. “When her relationship ends, Mary doesn’t really have support structures in place or meaningful communication with anyone.”

Having a network in place can make the world of difference.  If that’s absent, geographic isolation can be extremely debilitating.  Anne, 60, is recently bereaved and lives in rural Co Waterford with her three sons, aged 17, 19 and 21.  There are no neighbours for several miles. She retired from her job three years ago and was hoping to enjoy an early retirement with her husband.

“Now that he’s gone, I find I am alone a lot.  I can be sitting at home doing a crossword puzzle or Sudoku and all of a sudden I’ll burst out crying.” This feeling is an insidious one, according to Anne, one that creeps up on you when you least expect it.

“I’ll be in the middle of reading a book and I’ll glance at the arm chair he used to sit in and suddenly feel very lonely.  I’ll think of all the things we were supposed to do together.”

Although she lives with her three sons, Anne frequently still feels very alone.  “It’s like I’m not there.  I can be in a room with them and they’re all on their phones.  I can go from one day to the next, picking them up and dropping them off with the minimal amount of conversation.  It’s like they don’t see me.”

Social media plays a huge part in perpetuating loneliness.  According to the Mobile Youth Report conducted by Thinkhouse (2014), 41% of Irish people from 15 to 35 spend two to three hours on their smartphones every day.  In a similar survey, Deloitte discovered that 86% of Irish people check their smartphones over 140 times each day.  The quality of our face-to-face interactions is deteriorating as we’re becoming increasingly distracted by technology.  Not only that, people use social media platforms such as Instagram to project the perfectly polished view of life where experiences are highly filtered, as opposed to accurate depictions of reality.  It isn’t entirely a negative force, however, and for some busy professionals it can be a lifeline. Janine, 36 is a freelance graphic designer, living alone in the suburbs of Dublin.  Working from home, Janine finds that she often won’t take breaks.  Sometimes, she can go up to three days without having a conversation with anyone.  She’s so tired from working long hours that she often falls asleep on the couch before getting to bed.  She says having a bit of banter during the day on Whatsapp or Facebook makes her feel a little less disconnected from the outside world.

Although loneliness is increasingly prevalent, there have never been more opportunities to counteract it.  Becoming part of a tribe can help to find purpose and meaning in life.  Joining a  bridge/book club, a walking group or a yoga class can being about real change. Caring for a pet can be therapeutic; it directs attention away from the introspection that perpetuates loneliness. Being part of a community with a shared interest like the ICA, active retirement groups or parish/community groups can revitalise one’s social life. For young people, ReachOut.com SpunOut.ie and YourMentalHealth.ie offer an online forum service where young people can engage with peers and professionals. Alone offers numerous supports for older people (phone calls, visits, a befriending service and social events) and helps promote awareness of the loneliness epidemic in the elderly.  With parallels being drawn between feelings of loneliness and heart disease, stress, memory loss and anxiety, it’s high time loneliness became a hot topic.

 
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