independent

Monday 18 February 2019

We need to talk about loneliness

We try to keep Sundays family-friendly. We like to do the whole Sunday dinner shebang as it has the effect of making everyone sit down together for longer than five minutes; so that on any given Sunday, there is a buzz to the house, it is packed with noise and commonplace happiness.

A recent Sunday however saw us break with routine and with the exception of one son, all of us found ourselves with individual plans that left no room for the usual Sunday shenanigans.

Although delighted to learn he had the house to himself, not to mention Netflix, he nonetheless casually commented that the house would be lonely without us.

The following day I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the scarcity of student accommodation in the country's university towns. Mention was made of a new initiative called "Generation Accommodation". This is where older people living alone in now empty houses rent out their spare space out to students.

Interestingly their motivation is not so much financially-driven but much more personal; they are combating loneliness. One interviewee unashamedly admitted she was lonely and that this initiative was a godsend; an opportunity to open up her house and her life to new people and friendships. I admired her courage and her willingness to start the conversation.

Loneliness comes in all shapes and sizes. You can be lonely for a family member you no longer see, you can be lonely for a place you are unable to visit, you can be lonely for a day when the house is too quiet and you can be lonely for years in a house that is always quiet.

That said the conversation about loneliness is often subsumed by the bigger conversation on mental illness. And though every discussion on mental health is a welcome one, there is rarely a stand-alone discussion on loneliness but rather it marks the starting point in the wider discourse on depression and suicide.

However suicide is a symptom of loneliness and loneliness the genesis of depression; therefore loneliness as a state of mind really does deserve a stand-alone discussion.

Loneliness starts simply, it can be due to impaired ability to make friends, the lack of opportunity to participate socially or it can stem from feelings of inadequacy born of another time.

Loneliness is often attributed to older people but the irony is that the loneliest person in the room can be the youngest person in the room and the loneliest person in the room can also be the loudest; Robin Williams is the epitome of how the most adulated in life can feel the most alone in life.

The hard truth is happiness can never be assumed nor can it be bought. All the things we think make us happy - popularity, intelligence and money - can be the very things that isolate us; brilliance can an alienating thing be.

We do need to talk about loneliness before we find we have to talk about something else.

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