Isolation, Loneliness & Connection
By Dean Spruce, Communication & Media Coordinator, VOICES
I recently had a conversation with an inspirational individual who is campaigning to raise awareness of the impact and prevalence of loneliness and isolation within our community, and as a result have been thinking about this within the context of the work we do here at VOICES ever since.
When we think about loneliness what is the first thing that we picture? As we are all subject to the human condition, I think it’s fair to say a lot of us will be thinking of the stereotype, an elderly lady or gentleman, sitting in a chair alone. We imagine a solitary existence where days and weeks pass by without any contact with the outside world, except perhaps through a television sitting in the corner of a barely furnished room. The tragedy of this is that the stereotype is perfectly valid, for some people the images we just conjured up are very real, and in 2018 the thought that some of our elderly are faced with this kind of existence is very upsetting. However, this is a stereotype, ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing’, in this case the idea being ‘loneliness’. The point I want to pick up on here is that this is an oversimplification of the issue. Loneliness isn’t necessarily what we think it is, and it can, and does affect people from all walks of life, regardless of how old they are.
Carl Jung would tell us that, “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”
We don’t need to be alone to experience loneliness, and the loneliness we can experience through not being able to express ourselves, or to simply feel like we can be ourselves, can be devastating, or even fatal. Standing in a crowded space, surrounded by people, and not feeling a connection to any of it is a strange feeling indeed, almost like time standing still for you, whilst the world rushes on past, unconcerned about leaving you behind.
Consider the implications of feeling this way, especially for a prolonged period of time. What effect would this have for your health, for your ability to function in the world? The onset of mental ill-health, or use of substances to find a moments release does not seem unreasonable to me in this scenario. Neither does the overwhelming urge to isolate ourselves away in order to cope.
In the document, ‘Five ways to wellbeing’ endorsed by mental health charity MIND, as well as the NHS, the five points to address to achieve wellbeing are listed as:
- BE ACTIVE
- TAKE NOTICE
- KEEP LEARNING
You will note the first thing listed here is to ‘connect’. We know this is important, but what does this mean, and how do we do it?
As human beings we operate in more than one domain, the conscious mind and the physical world around us being one, and the unconscious mind being another. We can define the ‘unconscious’ mind as “the part of the mind which is inaccessible to the conscious mind but which affects behaviour and emotions.” These two components are intertwined and combine to make us who we are, even though one half is not immediately visible, or accessible to us. The point I am making is that we are complex creatures, and the relationships we have with others and the world around us are equally complex. Real ‘connection’ cannot be achieved by simply having a conversation, or having a job, or a hobby or a past time. Although these are all good things, and are certainly a starting point.
Another question might be, “what is there to connect to?” The ancient Greeks used the term “Philia”, which roughly translates to “brotherly love” to describe a sense or feeling of togetherness experienced by members of society, that they considered central to a society being successful. If this is considered true, the same requirement would stand today.
In the fast-paced world of 2018, where access to information and possibilities are endless, pressures are high and communities are fragmented, ‘connecting’ is a difficult task indeed. Communication technologies such as social media giants Facebook and Twitter, on the surface at least, offer us a way to connect to our communities, and they can do this when used in certain ways. They can also however have the opposite effect, further marginalising and isolating us with their ideal versions of ‘reality’.
In terms of multiple and complex needs, having worked in and around support services for the last ten years it strikes me that the need to connect, which is as essential to us as food and water, is often seen as a secondary issue, the primary issues being addiction, mental ill-health, homelessness and offending. I have to wonder if we’ve got these the wrong way around, or at least if we give enough consideration to what a lack of connection means for us, both as individuals and as a society. There is also stigma attached to the words we use to describe this, ‘loneliness’ may be perceived as some sort of weakness, especially in the case of a young, fit individual for example, and yet as discussed, these feelings can affect any of us at any time.
I believe there is a need for ongoing conversation around this, the stigma mentioned needs to be dealt with and in doing so our ability to look after ourselves and each other will surely improve. There is no shame in feelings of loneliness, connection is a basic human need. Furthermore, the consequences of not being connected to our environment and the people around us have serious implications for all of us. The ways in which we live and interact are changing at significant pace, therefore the systems and structures we have in place to enable us to maintain our health and prosperity, also need to change.
I hope that this blog serves as food for thought, and that as a community we can continue this conversation. Let’s deepen our understanding of why we feel lonely, why we isolate ourselves and why we need to connect. Look after yourselves people, and look after each other 😊
If you are interested in further reading this is an interesting article: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/