From the Nurse
UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness earlier this year, saying “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life”.
Initially, it was thought loneliness mainly affected the elderly, but loneliness does not discriminate. It affects young and old, wealthy and poor, people who are isolated and people who are surrounded by people. Loneliness is now understood to cause health problems and a predisposition to mental health issues. It is a painful emotional state.
According to the Australian Red Cross Loneliness Survey 2017, the main reasons for loneliness are:
- Death of a loved one;
- Breakdown of a relationship;
- Isolation at school or work;
- Moving from family/friends;
- Losing a job, and
- Having a baby.
Loneliness is prevalent during adolescence with more than 70% of adolescents experiencing recurring loneliness at age 18, a rate that declines to 60% by ages 35–40, and 39% for older adults. Older people may be more resilient to loneliness.
For adolescents, attachment to school and parental support have been found to be crucial. The teenage years are such a transition time. Teens are keen to feel socially accepted and to belong, while also starting to become more independent of their parents. Peer relationships become very important.
Adolescents can have lots of friends or followers on Facebook but may lack real meaningful relationships. Social media provides ways for teens to connect and can be positive. Yet it might also show what they are missing, how different their life is from others – perceived or real. Social media doesn’t replace personal contact: an emoji can hardly replace a real laugh or an appreciative expression.
Teens who are well-liked and who feel supported by their friends are less likely to report feeling lonely. School attachment and feeling connected to people at school is protective. Dr Michael Carr-Gregg talked about the boys finding their ‘spark’, their special interest that brings with it interactions, conversations and a sense of belonging. Parental warmth is also thought to help protect from feelings of loneliness.
Loneliness can lead to anxiety and depression but also cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, sleep disorder and make us more susceptible to illness. It’s not something to be ignored.
How should we tackle loneliness?
Firstly, it helps to accept that this is how you are feeling. Understand how it is affecting your mind and body. For example, you may realise you are not sleeping as well, or that you become anxious about going out to do your regular activities. Decide to take action.
It would be easy to say join a sporting club, church group, or become a volunteer, phone a friend you have lost contact with or get a hobby. This may well improve short-term loneliness.
But for persistent long-term loneliness, it appears we first need to be comfortable within ourselves. In Struggling Adolescent, Dr Les Parrott writes: “Being alone is marked by introspection and renewal. Feeling alone is marked by self-pity and feelings of abandonment”. We must acknowledge our own negative thoughts limit our ability to connect and engage. If we feel unworthy, unlikeable, inadequate or ashamed, how can we feel confident to pursue and contribute to a friendship? These feelings must be examined, challenged and new behaviours learned.
Once we understand this we can believe that overcoming loneliness is within our control.
Sister Margaret Bates