As an advocate for mental health awareness, I have learned a lot about various brain disorders and illnesses. Of course each one comes with its own set of symptoms which is helpful in making a diagnosis and moving forward with treatment. Some symptoms overlap among illnesses, and some are unique to a specific disorder.
In my experience, when dealing with these illnesses, there is one symptom that is often present, though because it might be perceived as an effect, and not a cause of issues, there’s not much attention paid to it.
I’m talking about loneliness.
Of course, those with mental health issues are not the only ones who struggle with loneliness. Many of us have experienced the ache of feeling isolated, disconnected, and even alienated from those around us. Loneliness is not uncommon. While it’s true that some populations seem to experience it more intensely than others, such as seniors and those with mental health issues, it is not confined to specific groups.
We all know that mental health disorders come with their fair share of stigma. I believe there is stigma associated with loneliness as well. Admitting that you’re lonely might feel akin to acknowledging that nobody likes you, or at the very least wants to spend time with you. Because friendships and being able to relate to peers are so central to the lives of children, teenagers and young adults, these populations might find it particularly difficult to verbalize their feelings of loneliness. Instead the pretend they “are fine.”
Why do people feel lonely? The answer to this question is likely unique to each individual. Are they reacting poorly to life’s stressors and therefore isolating themselves? Are they dealing with social anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other illnesses? Do they have poor social skills, and if so, why? As mentioned above, it is often not even clear if these factors cause loneliness, or are a result of being lonely. Again, I think the answers will vary.
While professional help is warranted in all the above cases, what can those of us who care about someone who is dealing with loneliness do? How can we help ease their pain? While it’s easy to think just spending time with our loved ones will be helpful, it often isn’t. If depression is causing loneliness, for example, our loved one could be surrounded by people and still feel incredibly lonely. In my son’s case, he was dealing with severe OCD, and he could not be around his friends because he feared he’d harm them. Not surprisingly, this contributed greatly to his loneliness.
It can become a vicious cycle. No matter how the loneliness starts, it is likely to exacerbate mental health issues. These issues, in turn, can lead to more loneliness.
In these times of high technology and increased social media, we, as a society, are experiencing less and less human contact. It seems as if we are more connected, but we are not — at least not in real, meaningful, ways. We need live face-to-face connections, not virtual ones. So maybe the best we can do for those who are experiencing loneliness is to let them know we are there for them when they are ready — let them know we are available, in the flesh, to support them in whatever way they need, whether that means talking, listening, or just being together. Who knows? It could be that the simple acts of making eye contact, smiling, touching someone’s arm, and hugging, might be some of our most powerful tools in the fight against loneliness.