Loneliness can be as life-threatening to the elderly as obesity and poverty... But it's even becoming a problem among young people, as Lisa Salmon finds out .
We all have days when we feel slightly alone. Our friends are busy, the kids are away, nobody's responding to your texts or calls. But this is very different to feeling deeply, inconsolably lonely.
Loneliness is a growing problem, in a modern society that spreads people further and further from their family roots, and interacts them more and more with technology, rather than real people.
And while loneliness is an affliction often seen as an 'old person problem' – a new report shows that more than five million older people in the UK are affected by loneliness – the truth is, younger people don't escape.
Recent research by the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a greater concern among young people than the elderly, with 18 to 34-year-olds more likely than the over-55s to feel lonely often, to worry about feeling alone, and to feel depressed because of loneliness.
Prior to that, earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found the UK to be the loneliness capital of Europe, with people here less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than people anywhere else in the EU. Even worse, many people said they have nobody to rely on in a crisis.
Indeed, yet another new report this week from relationship support group Relate, reveals that one in 10 of us don't have a single close friend.
And sorry, but it's only going to get worse.
Friends of the Elderly have just published a new report, The Future of Loneliness, which suggests that by 2030, 40% of older people in the UK will be lonely.
That's a terrifying figure – especially when you also realise loneliness is said to be as life-threatening to the elderly as obesity and poverty.
And even those living life in the limelight, adored by millions, aren't immune to feelings of isolation, such as pop star Lady Gaga, who told one interviewer: "I'm perpetually lonely. I'm lonely when I'm in relationships. It's my condition as an artist."
It's not all without hope, though. Friends of the Elderly are now running a Be a Friend campaign (beafriendtoday.org.uk), encouraging people to get to know their older neighbours, and look out for each other where they can.
And Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, reminds people that the mental health charity is there to help anyone battling feelings of isolation.
"Loneliness can have a significant impact on mental health, contributing to problems such as anxiety and depression," says Murphy.
While people often feel lonely because of personal circumstances – such as bereavement, relationship breakdown, retirement, moving to a new area, discrimination, being a carer and not being able to get out, or past physical or sexual abuse that makes it hard to form relationships – sometimes loneliness is a deeper, more constant feeling that comes from within, she explains. That feeling that doesn't disappear, no matter how many friends you have.
When this is the case, it's about learning to make the best of being alone.
Yes, it's easier said than done, but Murphy has some suggestions. Learn yoga or meditation, to refocus and calm your mind, keep a journal to share your thoughts in and, where circumstances allow, how about getting a pet?
She also encourages people to get out and do something they enjoy, be it visiting a tourist attraction or cooking, and focus on the pleasure it gives you, rather than the fact you're doing it by yourself. Turn being alone into a positive, empowering thing, not a burden.
Wherever and whenever you can, also take steps, however small, to become more connected with the world:
- Make contact with people you know on the phone, by text or email.
- In a group situation, make a special effort to join in the conversation – you never know where it might lead.
- Make the most of opportunities for social contact, however fleeting, by starting a conversation or even just saying hello.
- Ask people about themselves and what they're interested in – people always like talking about themselves.
- Join a social group connected to something that interests you, like gardening, walking, sport etc.
- The internet is a good way to connect with people, but do think carefully about what information you share. And remember, it's not the same as seeing someone face-to-face.