Mental health awareness week: Loneliness

Featured article - 09 May 2022
By Joanna Lenham, SCIE Practice Development Manager

Woman talking

Whilst working in a Local Authority social work team many years ago, I met a lady who was really struggling to cope. She barely moved from her chair, rarely ate and seemed to be rapidly declining. In desperation, her family arranged for a stay in a care home near to them and when I visited her there, it was like meeting a different person. With hindsight she was very clear that it was loneliness that had rendered her almost unable to function. And she was equally clear that connection with her family and with others in the supportive environment she had moved to had restored her quality of life.

Loneliness is the theme for Mental Health Awareness week 2022. Defined as the mismatch between the social connections we have and those we need or want, loneliness is a very personal thing. It can also have a huge impact, affecting our mental health, and is associated with higher rates of mortality and poorer physical health. Covid-19 has reminded us all what it’s like not to be able to connect with others socially and for some that has had a devastating effect. As the lockdowns and restrictions on mixing lifted, many have been able to re-establish those connections and any sense of loneliness has eased but for some, loneliness was already present in their lives long before the pandemic and declining infection rates won’t change that for them.

During the consultation period for the NICE guideline on older people with social care needs and multiple long-term conditions I met with some older people living in extra care housing and during those conversations, one lady who was living with several health conditions said: “Loneliness is the worst disease”. For her, and for so many other people, the impact of loneliness on their day-to-day life was more debilitating than their physical health conditions and devastated their sense of wellbeing. In their report Loneliness beyond Covid-19 the Campaign to End Loneliness reminds us that “People who were already lonely were likely to get lonelier…it exacerbated existing inequalities…”

So as people rebuild their social connections, it’s vital that we remember that for some people loneliness will continue to impact their health and wellbeing long after memories of how those lockdowns felt have faded. There are steps we can all take to help reduce loneliness during Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond but at its most basic level it’s about reaching out to one another, enabling human connection and sharing our stories.

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