Is there a ‘silent epidemic’ of loneliness today?

Is there a ‘silent epidemic’ of loneliness today? The Commission on Loneliness, initially set up by the murdered MP Jo Cox, was launched in January with claims that it affects at least 1 in 5 of us, and can lead to depression, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure and the onset of dementia. Britain has even been described by researchers as the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’. According to Sue Bourne, who’s documentary Age of Loneliness was broadcast last year, experiences like ‘losing your job or constantly having to move for work makes you rootless’. For all our so-called ‘friends’ on social media more of us live alone than ever before. 

The breakdown of marriages can mean the loss of wider social networks and of a sense of what the future might hold. New mothers cut off from the support of family can also feel alone, and stranded with only demanding children for company. The young are lonely according to recent research, with leaving home – especially for students – an upsetting time. While Bourne argues that volunteering initiatives have a role to play in ‘creating new support networks to replace the traditional ones we’ve now lost’, is there anything worse than having to endure the enforced civility of well-meaning befrienders when all you really want is to be left alone?

The ‘cure for loneliness’ is not so much about meeting other people as about ‘learning how to befriend yourself’ argues Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City. That and recognising the ‘larger forces of stigma and exclusion’. She’s only half right. In recent months we’ve heard little else from the young Royals than their ‘awareness’ campaigning, with government, about their and our mental health, prompting an irritated Katie Hopkins to suggest they ‘put a sock in it’. The emotional correctness of being told not to bottle-up our problems, and instead wear our proverbial hearts on our sleeves like their late mother, is indicative of where official campaigns to make us talk about our problems can lead.

It seems to me that the new high profile for loneliness instead of being an opportunity to examine the psychological impact of social fragmentation and the breakdown of community that is such a feature of modern life, is instead being used as Laing describes it, to homogenise and gentrify the emotions, and to reduce ‘difficult feelings’ such as ‘depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage’ to a health problem.

Turning loneliness into a mental health problem ignores the positive side to being alone, which more of us are able to experience as a consequence of living longer, more affluent and mobile lives. The experience of leaving home, getting a job or going to university in a new town, used to be exciting prospects full of the promise of independence, money, academic study or wild parties; not, as is increasingly the case, with isolation, emotional and mental health problems, and an excess of introspection. Surely there is something to be said for the quiet and contemplation that comes with solitude; and enjoying one’s own company. 

But still we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Individuals have increasingly turned in on themselves as a therapeutic ethos has taken hold. There is a fearfulness of engagement with others, of commitment to relationships; and an absence of a social framework within which to engage with others. The demise of the family, church, workplace, the pub and the working men’s clubs, as places where people can meet, find meaning, socialise and share of themselves is as much a consequence of this as it is its cause. These institutions of the past reflected the way people used to live their lives. It is perhaps only in the creation of new solidarities emerging organically from our attempts to re-engage with each other, that the problem of loneliness will be tackled?

The social policy forum were discussing ‘Are we getting lonelier?’ 


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