This Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s break the stigma of loneliness
Mental Health Awareness Week next week is our chance to talk about loneliness, how it affects our mental health and break the stigma that surrounds it.
When we founded Mental Health Awareness Week 22 years ago, we wanted to explore issues which are often left in the shadows, but which deeply affect our mental health.
Loneliness is one such issue. It is all around us but hides in plain sight. Next week, our research report, ‘All the Lonely People’, will show that over three quarters of us have experienced loneliness at some point in our lives and millions in the UK say they feel lonely some or all the time.
The longer we feel lonely, the more we are at risk of mental health issues.
Talking about loneliness is hard but we need to start conversations
Long-term feelings of loneliness have also been shown to be associated with higher rates of mortality and poorer physical health.
Covid-19 brought loneliness closer to millions of us. Our pandemic study found that during lockdowns, loneliness was almost three times that of pre-pandemic levels. Unsurprisingly, the demand for mental health support and the acuity of mental health problems have risen since.
But we still struggle to talk about it. Shame around loneliness is frightening. Large numbers of us would never admit it publicly. One mother, Rachel, 29, from Wales, echoed what many fear, “I feel like with my friends… I don't want to burden them. I feel like they would look down on me if I did tell them I was feeling lonely.”
Loneliness is a complex issue. Stereotypes endure about who experiences loneliness: the public tends to under-estimate the role of loneliness in young people, and over-estimate it older people; we under-estimate loneliness in urban settings compared to rural ones.
Stereotypes can prevent people from recognising their own loneliness and prolong the time people feel lonely. This in turn increases the mental health risks.
The UK government was first in the world to publish a Loneliness Strategy in 2018 and appoint a minister for loneliness. We must sustain this momentum, take full account of the mental health effects of loneliness, and deliver targeted support where it is most needed.
Next week, we will release our policy briefing calling for the action that’s needed.
Critically, the government must address the chronic underfunding of public health and include commitments on loneliness within its new 10 year Mental Health strategy.
Important actions include supporting more social connections, for example, by creating greener neighbourhoods which one study shows can reduce feelings of loneliness by almost a third and
developing community resources and spaces to help those most at risk of loneliness in health centres, libraries, places of worship, job centres, schools and universities.
Talking about loneliness is hard but we need to start conversations. We’re encouraging everyone to help bring loneliness out of the shadows by using the #IveBeenThere hashtag to share their experiences.
Loneliness and its stigma affects us all and we are all part of the solution.
Mark Rowland is CEO of the Mental Health Foundation. Find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week
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