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Mental Health Awareness - Managing Loneliness
A personal reflection on managing mental health and loneliness
Mental Health Awareness Week has become one of the most significant awareness campaigns worldwide. Held each May, the annual awareness week highlights a different theme every year in the hope of improving mental wellbeing. This year’s theme sought to raise awareness of how prolonged or severe loneliness can affect not just mental, but also physical health, and the implications of this on individuals as well as the wider society.
Feeling lonely isn’t a mental health issue per se, but the two are inextricably connected; the repercussions of having a mental health issue can make you feel lonely, as well as alone, for several reasons. People with mental health issues may be unable to access services or may struggle to communicate their innermost feelings leaving them feeling misunderstood. This in turn might mean they stop talking about their difficulties and end up feeling alone with their problems. It’s also not uncommon for people who have mental health problems to struggle with social anxiety, making social interaction seem impossible. This results in avoiding social activities which, again, leads to feelings of loneliness.
It’s a vicious circle where the impact of mental health difficulties can make you feel alone or can lead you isolate yourself which can make you feel lonely. This feeling of loneliness, or aloneness, then has a detrimental impact on your mental health which perpetuates the feeling of loneliness and so on and so forth.
My struggles saw me become a revolving door patient, in and out of hospital for about a decade. I always felt far more alone than lonely because, not only was I shut off from the world when I was stuck on wards, but when discharged back into the community, I continued to shut myself off from the world, probably a result of institutionalisation, fear, and anxiety. I couldn’t relate to my peers who were passing their driving tests, going off to university, graduating, getting jobs, getting engaged, married, buying houses, chatting about everyday things like clothes shopping, holidays, meals out, television programmes…things that just seemed utterly trivial and banal to me when I was consumed by trying to survive each day, ten minutes at a time.
So I isolated myself from the world. The frustration of not being able to untangle or express the torment going on inside me meant that I just shut down, sometimes literally unable to speak. That meant recovery became unattainable because if I couldn’t say what was wrong, then how could anyone help me? That then exacerbated feeling alone, feeling like I never fitted in, never belonged. A vicious circle from which, for years, I saw no way out.
It’s really not ok to not be ok, and the hard truth is that there is no easy or finite solution. The good news is that managing feeling lonely or alone due to mental health issues is absolutely possible with continuous effort. Surround yourself with positive people who care about you, who believe in you, and who can be there by your side to cheer you on. Whilst you are the only one with the power to force yourself to make changes, that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.
Throughout all those years doing the hokey cokey in and out of hospital, which wasn’t fun by any stretch of the imagination, my tunnel vision goal was to return to university. That gave me something positive to focus on, enabling me to move forward, even if being a mature student was also a lonely experience. I always need to have a goal on the go, to have something to work towards, and being lucky enough to get a place on this graduate programme gives me the opportunity to continually set goals and constantly stretch myself. It has also given me a sense of purpose, and personally, that is the ultimate solution to managing mental health.
It’s important to remember that there is no one-size fits all solution, but here are some suggestions about how you can try to manage loneliness:
Reach out – it might feel impossible, but reach out to someone you know you can trust, someone that gets you, and if talking is too difficult, write down what you want to say
Don’t ignore the issue – the longer it goes on, either the worse it gets or the harder it is to get back to where you want to be. If people ask how you are or whether you’re ok, don’t just automatically say you’re fine if that’s not the truth. Most people genuinely care and may be able to help
Try distraction techniques that stimulate your mind and give you energy and positive feelings. Focus on something else, something fulfilling, something that can make you feel that you’re achieving things and feel proud of yourself. Do activities that you know you love, or activities that involve you being around people.
Silence can make loneliness seem worse; playing music/podcasts/films/series/radio that you love might help fill the void.
Connect with like-minded people, be that online or in-person, as this might help increase feelings of belonging or connectedness with others. Equally, if you need to, take a break from social media as comparing ourselves with others can be detrimental
Spend time outdoors and/or with pets who give unconditional love.
If you’re struggling to cope with loneliness or any other mental health condition, MIND have a range of services that you can contact at any time.