The Well of Loneliness

 

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In January of this year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced the appointment of a so-called Minister of Loneliness.   While this may have been met with some snickers and a fair share of snide comments, most of those involved in the mental health sector were quietly applauding.

It may seem strange, but loneliness has become a silent, unseen epidemic in our hyper-connected world.

Monday 10 September marked World Suicide Prevention Day to raise awareness around the globe of the realities of suicide and, more importantly, that suicide can be prevented.

While reasons for suicide are complex and varied, I think we can all agree that feelings of isolation, of having nowhere to turn, are a contributing factor in that very thin line between thought and action.

Emotional connection is as important to our health as food and water. The term “died of loneliness” is often coined when a surviving partner in a long term marriage dies shortly after their spouse.  Until recently this was pure speculation, but recent studies out of the University of California and the University of Chicago have found that loneliness triggers genetic changes which weaken the immune system, causing illness. Social isolation increases the risk of premature death by 14%.

Traditionally loneliness was associated with the elderly, the term ‘kodokushi’ is used in Japan for old people who die alone and are undiscovered for days, weeks or even months, this is also known simply as ‘the lonely death’. However today, increasing numbers of young people around the world admit to feeling lonely and isolated. The suicide statistics confirm this, with suicide being one of the three leading causes of death among those aged 15–44 years.

The reasons for increased feelings of loneliness and isolation remain unclear.  Technology is an easy scapegoat; it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation with studies unclear as to whether social-media use leads to further loneliness, or whether it allows lonely people to feel more connected and less isolated.

What we can be sure of is that each one of us needs to be reaching out to people more, making real, meaningful connections, whether in person or online.  We need to engage one another and check in on one another.

Send a letter, an email, a text; smile at a stranger; sit in silence with someone.  It seems apt that suicide awareness week ends with the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.  Surely one of the great sorrows of our time is loneliness.