Thanks to a plethora of recent surveys and news stories on the topic, the loneliness epidemic among young people is finally getting the airtime it deserves. Compared to people over 64, three times as many 16 to 24-year-olds regularly feel lonely, according to official statistics, and it's severely affecting their mental health.
In a recent study of 2,000 young people, the loneliest were more than twice as likely to have mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, to have self-harmed or attempted suicide, and were also more likely to have been to their GP or a counsellor for mental health problems in the past year. The point at which loneliness and mental health issues intersect is a particularly tricky one, and the relationship between them is causal for many people. For some, a mental health condition prevents them from being able to socialise and open up to people, while for others, mental ill-health stems from a lack of close relationships.
Thirty-three-year-old Michelle Lloyd is an HR manager who blogs about mental health at You Don't Look Depressed. She lives with an anxiety disorder and depression, for which she has been on antidepressants for six years, and currently lives alone in London, hailing from north Wales. Here, she shares her experience of coping with mental health issues while leading a solitary lifestyle with Refinery29 UK.
I'd definitely class myself as lonely. I’ve always been a lonely person, even when I've been in a relationship or had loads of people around me. My mental health hasn't been great over the last six months, mainly because my fiancé and I recently split up and we were supposed to get married in July, and my younger brother hasn't been too well, which hasn't helped my mental health. Having a mental health problem is lonely because you constantly feel like you have to explain yourself and tell people why you feel a certain way. If people don't get it, it can be very isolating, especially if you're not able to articulate how you feel.
I started having mental health problems in my teens but I never spoke to anyone about it until my early 20s and it was when I went to university that the loneliness hit. I was spending a lot of time on my own, I was homesick and it got worse from then on. I'm now living alone in London and I feel more isolated than ever, which comes with its own complications. I’ve always had periods of feeling very lonely and London is a different kind of beast to everywhere else I’ve lived before.
It’s one of the most lonely places if you don’t have a good bunch of people around you. Everyone is going about their lives in a brisk way and it’s very fast-moving. It feels like everyone knows what they’re doing and where they’re going and I feel like the odd one out. It’s a cliché to say that everyone’s really unfriendly, but people don’t even really make eye contact with you. I used to live in Manchester, which is completely different in the sense that people do chat to you and say good morning. Missing out on these basic interactions when you’re feeling anxious and lonely is hard.
I have about six people I'd class as good friends and I do have a few in London, but when you live in different parts of London you don't really end up seeing people that often. I sometimes struggle to find people to do stuff with because they'd have to drive across the country or they’re in relationships or they have kids. I do feel a little bit lonely in that sense. At the same time, I'd rather have a small number of really good friends than loads of acquaintances.
A typical day for me involves a long commute from my place in Peckham to my office in Islington. If I'm having a bad day I struggle to get up and a long morning commute isn't great when you have anxiety, as they can be quite stressful and busy. I don't interact with anyone until I get to the office. It's rare to get a smile or eye contact on the Overground. My first interaction will usually be with the girl who works at the coffee shop, which is a nice way to start the day. My job is people-focused, so I spend a lot of the day interacting with people but I do find the office environment quite lonely sometimes even though you’re surrounded by people. My role in HR means that people can be reluctant to talk to me because they're worried that I'll tell on them.
In the office, it's easy to have the same conversations with the same few people and never feel like you're connecting on a deeper level. You get a coffee and they’re like "Hi, how are you?" so you say, "Fine, how are you?" It's all small talk. My whole day is like that and then I go home and that's it. It's lonely feeling like I don't really have real connections with people on a human level.
At weekends I don't really see anybody, I don't see any friends or anything. I find myself going out shopping so I can be around people and then I end up spending too much money on clothes. When I'm feeling low I also like walking, reading and going to gigs. I don't go to many gigs these days because it's just me and I struggle with going on my own. It feels strange, as if people are just looking at you and thinking, 'God why is she on her own?' or whatever, so I do miss doing that.
I try to go out a couple of times a week, just to the pub after work, and I do try to plan things but it's hard because, like I said, my friends are all becoming parents or in relationships, and I don't want to be that person who is constantly asking, "Can I come?" I try to always say yes when people ask me to drinks, but that has its own pitfalls. I find myself going to the pub too much and relying too heavily on drinking, because that's the only time you feel happy – you’re in a public place and you've got people around you – so it's about balancing the positives with the unhealthy negatives.
I’m on all the main social media platforms but I try to avoid spending too much time on them. I’ve met some great people and have had lots of great opportunities through social media, but when you’re feeling particularly anxious or lacking in confidence it can be really tough to go on and see all the great things everyone’s doing, or at least the things you think they’re doing. I’m very aware that social media isn’t necessarily the full story, but it still has an effect on me because I’ve struggled with self-confidence and body confidence. The most damaging thing is comparing yourself to other people – celebrities and even normal people, who use so many filters and apps to make themselves look different. You think, 'Why can’t I look like her?' Social media also gives me FOMO, the fear that I’m constantly missing out on things.
If you tell someone you're lonely, the first thing they say is, "You need to get yourself a man" or "You need to get yourself on Tinder" and that's not what you want to hear. I’m not lonely because I don't have a man in my life, I'm lonely for a variety of reasons. Going out and having a one-night stand isn't going to make that any better, it’s going to make it worse. It's hard for people to understand why someone who lives in a great city and has a job can be lonely. There's a stigma attached to it. People think, 'You have a lot more than a lot of other people, so why aren't you happy?' You need to be selective in who you talk to about these things because you don't always get a positive reaction.
If you're feeling lonely, it's really important to remember that these feelings aren't going to last forever. If I’ve had a really bad day I try and tell myself that tomorrow might be better. Finding a hobby also helps – it can be cooking, walking, going to art galleries or just getting into a box set. Evenings are lonely when you’re on your own but getting into a series like Grey's Anatomy, which is like a hug in a show, and watching episode after episode and not having to think about it is great. Use social media – sensibly – too. Reaching out to people and realising that you’re not the only one feeling something is so powerful.
If you are experiencing a mental health condition and need support, please call Mind on 0300 123 3393.
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