Many of us can feel lonely sometimes. Many more of us can perfectly justifiably yearn for some time alone. The idea of a Sunday newspaper, fried egg sandwich and silence are of great appeal to me.
But being alone and choosing to be alone is very different to feeling lonely. Recently, I appeared on a BBC Radio panel discussing Scotland’s ‘loneliness epidemic’.
While I, like most people, objectively understood that being lonely can be miserable, hearing many of the callers describe their isolation made it very clear to me why loneliness can acutely affect both your physical and mental health, as well as your confidence and feeling you truly are connected to others.
One was lonely because he missed the friendships built up over decades in the shipyards. Another was a young mother who found it difficult to meet other adults. We might think of loneliness or isolation as something that primarily affects older people who live alone, but that’s far too simplistic a picture.
Loneliness means different things to different people and it impacts on all ages. But what we do know – and what we especially mustn’t ignore – is the strong evidence of a connection between social isolation and increased risk of suicide.
Loneliness or social isolation is hugely complex and the same is true of suicidal feelings. However we know that isolation and loneliness appear to have a relationship with suicide rates; it can be a risk factor itself, a catalyst for other risk factors, or something that underscores a lifetime of adversity.
Of course, not all people who feel lonely or are measurably socially isolated will feel suicidal; but it does increase the risk. Those who live alone are more likely to have suicidal thoughts and social isolation is a growing concern and a risk factor for suicide.
For men, we know that they tend to turn to their partners first in times of stress or crisis, so if these relationships break down, they may feel like they have nowhere to turn.
There’s also some indication that men are more likely to report feeling lonely even if they are not socially isolated. That may be because for many men their attempts to manage problems, to avoid stigma or revealing weakness, lead them to isolate themselves.
Instead they rely on coping strategies that provide only short-term relief a, for example, alcohol use or working excessively. This in turn of course only compounds the problem. Close, supportive and open relationships with family can be protective against suicide. The impacts of loneliness and isolation are real.
At Samaritans, we provide access to support as well as offering empathy, human contact and a listening ear. You could argue we are uniquely positioned to tackle this issue.
Yet the solutions are not so simple. In 1994, nearly 155,000 people came to doors of our branches for emotional support. By 2014, that was 23,000. However, it’s not that fewer people are contacting us: far from it.
Our service is as in demand as ever, yet the way people are reaching out to us has changed dramatically. And I think that’s why there can be no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
For many, talking to us over the phone, or by e-mail, is enough. For others, human interaction will always be key. Loneliness means different things to different people and so the solutions can be hugely varied.
How can we best ensure we are looking out for those whose connections to others are falling away and the increased risks of a range of health concerns that might leave them with?
The Scottish Government is at the early stages of developing a National Social Isolation Strategy ‘to ensure a holistic approach across government to problems of loneliness and isolation’. An approach that crosses government departments, as well as involving external agencies and organisations, is undoubtedly what’s needed for such a complex issue.
The challenges lie deep in a society which doesn’t always recognise the importance of human connections as well for us as individuals in how we reach out to others.
And as complicated a challenge as that is, it’s a hugely important one. Because addressing social isolation and loneliness isn’t just a nice thing to do. For some, this is a life or death issue. l James Jopling is Executive Director for Samaritans in Scotland.