Loneliness – a disturbing word, often invoking a sense of sadness and despair.
It’s not one thing. It is subjective. Imprecise.
It can be found anywhere.
When after many requests you still don’t have a sibling.
When you are born with skin colour darker or lighter than it should be.
When you are the new girl in class.
When you don’t get picked for the team.
When you sit alone at lunch time.
When you are not sure what you want and settle for what is available.
When you are stuck in a loop of cold-hearted bureaucracy.
When you are different.
When you are told ‘you should be happy’ by the one you are married to.
When you work from home and see no humans for many days.
When you feel you have to be somebody else to be successful and accepted.
When you are unable to have children.
When you have an abortion or a miscarriage.
When you have children and don’t see anyone but them all day everyday.
When your family is no longer a family.
When you have a fracture and are stuck in bed for weeks or months.
When ‘Facebook’ and ‘Instagram’ constantly offer comparisons.
When you get fired.
When you have just retired.
When a loved one suddenly disappears.
When you are blamed for a mistake you did not make.
When you get mugged.
When you are diagnosed with a serious illness.
When you are old and so easily forgotten.
Solitary confinement is one of the most severe forms of punishment because it can break your spirit. In 1951 researchers at McGill University paid a group of male graduate students to stay in small chambers equipped with only a bed for an experiment on sensory deprivation. They could leave to use the bathroom, but that’s all. They wore goggles and earphones to limit their sense of sight and hearing, and gloves to limit their sense of touch. The plan was to observe students for six weeks, but not one lasted more than seven days. Nearly every student lost the ability “to think clearly about anything for any length of time,” while several others began to suffer hallucinations. “One man could see nothing but dogs.” A study at Harvard found that roughly a third of many solitary inmates they interviewed were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.”
In the biggest literature review into the subject of loneliness, the University of York looked at 23 studies involving 181,000 people for up to 21 years. They found that lonely people are around 30 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke or heart disease, two of the leading causes of death in Britain. More than 1 in 5 people in the UK privately admit they are ‘always or often lonely’. It is a public health problem.
I welcome the ‘Commission on Loneliness’ launched in memory of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, to look for practical solutions to reduce loneliness in the UK. Let’s do our bit, however small.
“Fools,” said I, “You do not know –
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you.
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence…
-Sound of Silence by ‘Simon and Garfunkel’