I sometimes feel lonely. There, I’ve said it. But most younger people wouldn’t. According to a report by the Mental Health Foundation, 42% of those aged under 34 would be embarrassed to admit to feeling lonely. This is despite the fact that one in 10 people in the UK do not have a close friend, a study by the charity Relate found.
Loneliness in 2016 is a paradox: while the world has never been better connected, with myriad opportunities to travel and meet other people, isolation appears to be increasingly prevalent.
It is also misunderstood. Loneliness does not simply mean being alone. Rather, in the words of the mental health charity Mind, it is a sense of “not feeling part of the world”. According to Mind, “you might be surrounded by loads of people, but you are still lonely”.
This is something that many of us will have known. And it’s a potential killer, with chronic loneliness increasing your risk of premature death by 26%. Loneliness is also a silent assassin, which often goes unnoticed by the very people whose actions could help alleviate it.
There are strong links between loneliness and depression, which carries its own health implications. Counselling services are enormously oversubscribed, and antidepressants are all too readily dished out by medical professionals who lack the time and resources to discover what those who seek their help really need.
Even if you are able to speak to someone, they cannot teach you how to place yourself at the centre of other people’s lives or make sure that you have the necessary company and worthwhile friendships.
I know why I sometimes feel lonely. I have worked antisocial hours for years, including many weekends, and I help care for a parent. Making friends can be difficult for me and I suspect that I am too easily forgotten.
I wouldn’t describe myself as boring or lacking things to say. But finding people to hang around with feels like a neverending struggle, rather than a natural part of life. I am always the chaser, never the chased, which sometimes results in me shying away from trying to make plans.
Admitting that your friendships and social life are not as gilded as they should be feels shameful and embarrassing. As a twentysomething from the Instagram generation, our lives are meant to be filtered perfection.
Social media is often used as a way of advertising ourselves to others and it has no place for honesty or showing weakness. Nobody wants to make it look as if they are anything but happy, to the extent that you post a photo of yourself appearing to have a great time, all the while feeling desperately alone.
Loneliness is largely invisible. People tend to assume others are fine by themselves. Which they may be, most of the time. But whether chronic or temporary, feeling lonely is damaging and enormously stigmatised. It also leads to a vicious cycle: the more someone feels unwanted, the more they hang back.
The only real way forward is to try even harder to connect with people. But this doesn’t always work. I occasionally sense those that I reach out to distancing themselves, as if I’ve somehow missed a deadline for improving our friendship. If this were dating, I’d take the hint and move on. But I can’t really afford to in this case.
In a society where image often matters more than substance, people must make more of an effort to understand loneliness. Nobody chooses to be lonely. Human beings cannot help being introverted, shy or quiet. To finally combat the so-called last taboo, we could all do with remembering this.
If you are feeling lonely, visit Mind’s information page or speak to your GP.
Originally published on The Huffington Post on March 23 2016.