One of the bravest moments I’ve ever witnessed actually happened during a team building day at work. As you (probably) did not attend, I will set the scene for you: We crowded into a small room, aware that the theme for the day was to be mental health. As an opening activity we were put into groups and asked to brainstorm how our working environment could be changed to improve our mental well being. This produced much of the same response, and everyone laughed about how in-trays could be lighter, more staff parties would be great – oh, and an extra weeks paid holiday wouldn’t hurt either, thank you!
It was all light-hearted and fun…until it wasn’t anymore. The time soon came to ‘make it personal’ and, to help us do that, the person who was running the workshop invited a member of staff to speak about her experiences in front of the group. Out came a very emotional and honest speech about her struggles with depression. Suddenly the realities of living with a serious mental health condition hit home in the room. I struggled to hold myself together, and I know from the amount of people who rushed out for a quick cry during the break, that I was not alone. At the end, everyone applauded.
A virtual round of applause is in order for this champion – what a rock star! *applauds*
I think about this moment a lot, because I can’t get over how amazing and ballsy it was! We all say we should talk about our mental health more, but no one ever does. It’s still a weird taboo. It’s easy to lend an ear to other people’s problems, but being honest about our own is a completely different ballgame. Awkwardness and fear of judgement always gets in the way. It’s difficult to bring up, especially in the context of an ordinary exchange. (‘So how’s your weekend been?’ ‘Great – also, I’m struggling under the crushing weight of depression.’) There’s a feeling there that once you’re honest about this kind of thing with someone, they will never treat you the same again. That everything you say and do from that moment onwards will be interpreted within the context of your mental health problem. You’re more than your mental health problems, so you don’t want it to become the only thing someone sees when they look at you. Then there’s the worry that it will always be a weird elephant in the room in your interactions with this person from then on. After all, you value the friendships and relationships you have – so is it really worth the risk of alienating someone or making them feel awkward and embarrassed by being too personal with them?
The answer is yes! One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem this year*, so chances are the next person you come across is struggling. So many people suffer, and not speaking about it is, for want of a better word, madness! Sometimes the best thing you can do is just open up to someone – chances are they’ll be totally cool and lovely about it. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to be chastised for being a human being anyway! I figured if my colleague could stand up in front of the whole company and let them know she was human, then I could write some words on a page about something that’s been knocking my mental health lately: loneliness.
The woes of isolation: Enough to grind you down…
Loneliness on its own is not a mental health problem, merely a feeling. It’s natural to feel lonely sometimes; such as when going through a break up, or moving to a new place – it’s a symptom of change. But just like stress; loneliness, if left to fester, can be become crushing. It plays its part in making existing mental health problems worse, and contributing towards the development of new ones.*
This is why my loneliness worries me. Right now I’m simply a person who gets on with their life, but occasionally sheds a tear when they remember that they have so much they want to talk about, but no one to talk to. It’s enough to get me down now and again, but I deal with it. However if my social situation doesn’t improve this might not always be the case – I’m afraid I will always feel like this. I totally get how prolonged loneliness could make a sad person depressed, and a depressed person suicidal. The most common social problems and mental health problems tend to feed into each other; and loneliness can have a shitty effect on your mind-set. I’m a pretty upbeat kinda gal, negativity bores me and I don’t have much sympathy for self-pity; but there’s only so long you can go feeling like no one would really care if you died tomorrow before it becomes difficult to be positive.
That’s the kind of impact it has: in your loneliest moments, you end up going through every positive part of your life and crushing them all one by one. Sure, you’re lonely, but you have a decent job? Nope, it’s a shit one that pays terribly. Fine, but your family are so supportive and loving? Absolutely not, it’s all an act – they’re only there because they have to be, not because they want to be! Ok then, how about that cool date you went on last week? They said they wanted to see you again. Nah, they hate me, as does everyone else – I wouldn’t be lonely otherwise.
The natural by-product of this kind of mental snowballing is a knock in self-confidence. In some people, loneliness can produce an impulse to strike up conversation with anyone, anywhere; but for others, it can cause them to retreat into themselves. You go so long without having a genuine connection with someone that you start to convince yourself that it’s because you don’t deserve it. You don’t really deserve to be anything other than lonely and miserable. You then find that, even when the opportunity for a conversation does arise, you run in the opposite direction – because why would they care about what you have to say? Logical and positive thinking just disintegrates.
Really this isn’t the case at all. People can seem distant and cruel, but often they just don’t realise that you’re hurting. You’d be surprised how supportive people can be if you’re just honest with them. Admittedly when I confided in my mum about how I was feeling she was a complete savage. She told me she didn’t know what I expected her to do about it, because it was on me to sort my own problems out. This might seem dismissive, but she was full of practical advice too; it was exactly the kind of harsh, but fair, treatment that I needed and I felt better afterwards. (Gotta love that woman)
Here’s another quick story for you…
….this time starting with a fact: Strange people often stop to chat to me at the bus station. I don’t know why. It must be something about my face, buried into my coat and refusing to look anyone in the eye, that just screams speak to me. I care about your problems.
I actually like meeting strangers and listening to their stories and opinions, so I don’t really think twice about chatting to someone if they fancy a conversation. You get some weird characters where I live, but this man was an exception. He was called Alan and he was incredibly interesting. I had just missed my bus when I sat down next to him, so we ended up talking for over an hour. He was 96 years old, had served in both world wars, and was a former communist turned liberal democrat. He told me about his time working in a factory making watches, and in a bakery. He showed me a picture of his wife, who had died the year before. I honestly felt so lucky to pick the brains of someone with so much life experience. My bus eventually arrived and I had to leave; and when I looked back at him sitting by himself again, he waved goodbye. I was suddenly overwhelmed with sadness. I realised that might have been the only conversation he had had that day. Or that week. Or even that month.
Loneliness is not something usually associated with youth. Whilst the young can be found downing pints at the student union, and falling in and out of love, loneliness is reserved for old age; when your soul mate has died and your kids have their own lives. In other words: for people like Alan, as opposed to people like me. When you hear the word “lonely”, very rarely do you picture a business man who has no time for a social life outside of work, a divorcee whose social connections have left along with their partner, or in my case: a twenty something who doesn’t know what to do with themselves now their friends have moved away. Perhaps it’s this narrow image of what loneliness looks like that stops us from helping people day-to-day. I know I don’t think twice about talking with the Alans of the world at the bus stop: but would I think to ask the standard social butterfly how they were doing? I’m not so sure.
Keeping loneliness as a stubborn taboo isn’t going to do anyone any good. Everyone experiences it at some stage in their life. Modern living invites it*, and it is said that the physical effects of isolation are twice as bad for our health as obesity.* It’s common, and a cruel irony given the overload of new forms of communication we now have. The solution could be as simple as making a commitment to reach out to one new person, or making the effort to see your friends in person when you can. Me personally, I’ll do my best not to view my loneliness as a reflection on myself, and make sure to chat to the next Alan for a lot longer than the last – I hope you will too?
If it wasn’t already obvious, please take this post as an invitation to contact me if you ever feel you have no one else you can turn to. Alternatively, Mind is a go to source for helpful information and guidance on anything relating to mental health.