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BBC's Tara Mills: Poignant chat with widower who found companionship in cookery class led to my involvement in campaign to tackle misery of isolation

A chance meeting while working on a story for the BBC highlighted the effects of loneliness on people to Tara Mills. Now she's backing a new broadcast appeal aimed at raising awareness of the problem

As a student, I spent seven years working part-time in a large Belfast city centre department store. I really enjoyed my job, earning my own money, meeting new people and chatting to them. I remember when I started the job I was based in the household section, decking out the shelves and advising customers. Often customers, particularly older people, would come in to buy something like new sheets or towels or often just to browse, but they'd almost always stop for a chat. They'd talk about everything from the weather to the colour of the stock in store, to stories about their families and their childhood memories.

I enjoyed the conversation and on many occasions customers, particularly elderly ones, would thank me for taking the time to talk to them. They'd tell me how I'd been the only person they had spoken to that day. The poignancy of those comments wasn't lost on me, even as a young student with plenty of friends around me.

Many years later as part of my job as a reporter at BBC News NI, I interviewed an older man as part of a story I was working on. Through the years I've interviewed hundreds of people. I'm trained to always move on to the next story, not become too attached, even in the toughest and most emotionally-charged situations.

But sometimes as a journalist, a character, a personal story or moment will resonate and stay with you. One experience that stayed with me happened when I was interviewing an older man at a cookery class in a further education college. He said he'd that he had signed up for the class to gain some cooking skills. He confided that his wife had died a few months earlier, and he talked about how she'd looked after him, meaning that he'd never cooked a meal in his life, and that now was the time to learn.

But it was obvious to me, as I observed him joining in with the conversation with his fellow students, that he hadn't just signed up for a cookery class. Just as importantly, he was there for some company too.

It's easy for us to believe loneliness only affects people later in life, but unfortunately that's not the full story. The truth is that the feeling of being alone and isolated can affect anyone, for any number of reasons.

For some, the experience is temporary but for others the effects of loneliness can be harder to deal with and overcome. And admitting to feelings of isolation is difficult, so many people struggle on, suffering in silence.

The important thing to remember is, any of us can experience loneliness at different times in our lives, for a number of reasons - from bereavement to divorce, from adolescence to getting older and being unable to leave the house, or from unemployment or taking on new caring responsibilities, the list is endless. For many people, these feelings pass with time but for others, loneliness can become a difficult or prolonged problem. And it can be something that people feel embarrassed about admitting, or even talking about.

Acknowledging a problem is usually the first and most important step in overcoming it. With loneliness, it's vital that we seek help and support each other. Loneliness may not be a mental health issue in itself, but it can lead to mental health problems over time.

It's interesting how issues around loneliness and mental health have been explored by best-selling authors. Earlier this year, I hosted several BBC events as part of the Mountstewart Conversations and I was lucky enough to interview two brilliant authors who've written about these subjects - Gail Honeyman, author of the award-winning novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and Cathy Rentzenbrink whose A Manual For Heartache is based on her own experience of loss.

The central character in Gail Honeyman's novel is 40 years old. She leaves work every Friday and returns on Monday morning without having spoken to another soul all weekend. When I interviewed her, Gail was keen to point out how it's not difficult to imagine why someone could find themselves in a similar position through no fault of their own. And many of us can relate to what it feels like to be on the outside, looking on at the world and beginning to accept it as the norm.

Reading Gail's book and hearing her talk about it, made me think about how we treat our colleagues, our friends and our neighbours. Life is fast and everyone is so busy these days that it can be easy to forget that just because someone is quiet or reluctant to take part in conversations, it doesn't mean they wouldn't appreciate being included once in a while. The least we could do is ask.

Cathy Rentzenbrink describes the 'social glow' that we can get simply by reaching out, or being kind, to someone else. She lost her brother when they were both teenagers and her feelings of grief and loss were so overwhelming that it took many years for her to find joy in life again. And she writes about how building connections to other people was crucial in her journey.

In today's world, social media can keep us connected like never before. But it can also heighten our feelings of isolation if we see other people living what seem to be full and busy lives while we feel ours doesn't measure up.

When I heard about BBC Northern Ireland's new broadcast appeal, Playing Our Part: Everybody Needs Somebody, I jumped at the chance to get involved.

It's such a worthwhile campaign and aims to raise awareness of the effects of loneliness and to offer advice, guidance and ideas on how everybody can do something - big or small - to help someone in need. It's a subject that I've always been interested in and this appeal will give it some added prominence.

My colleague Barra Best and I have made our own films about loneliness to show that this issue can affect anyone, no matter what age or social background. These films will be shown on BBC Northern Ireland television over the next couple of weeks. They are particularly poignant because of the everyday situations that they describe.

There will also be stories, features and reports across the BBC's airwaves, encouraging as many people as possible to get involved with the appeal.

One of the things that I like most about this appeal is the practical advice on what people can do to help. It might be something as simple as starting a conversation, or asking a neighbour if there's anything they need, or just making a little bit of time for an older friend or relative.

These are all small things that don't take a lot of effort - but the difference they can make to someone's life, particularly when they're feeling low can be huge. The important thing to remember is we can all help overcome loneliness by recognising that everybody needs somebody and not just at this time of year.

I always find it's true what they say that everyone you meet is fighting a battle - and sometimes it's only years later that you find out what that battle was.

No matter how busy life was back in my student days, I always took the time to listen and chat to our customers. I had no way of knowing what they were going home to.

For more information about the BBC NI's Broadcast Appeal Playing Our Part, Everybody Needs Somebody, go to bbc.co.uk/niappeals or www.changeyourmindni.org

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