It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week and this year’s theme is loneliness.
Loneliness affects millions of people in the UK every year and is a key driver of poor mental health.
Mike Jeffries, Training Manager at Birmingham Mind shares his own struggles with loneliness and what helped him overcome them.
My experiences are historical in the sense of being quite some time ago now. Although if my mental health comes under strain, and I’m not looking after myself properly, there are occasional nasty echoes of previous feelings.
With the benefit of hindsight my loneliest times have been very much connected to low self esteem and feelings that I generally wasn’t good enough for anything – despite lots of evidence from people in my life to the contrary!
When your mind is struggling it’s very good at not recording the positives and zeroing in and exaggerating every tiny negative experience.
At its worst, loneliness and low self esteem ganged up on me and created a breeding ground where suicidal thoughts can appear – and I certainly had suicidal thoughts during this time. I was also consuming too much alcohol and, whilst it felt like it numbed the pain, it just added to the cloudiness in my head.
The break-up of a relationship and then a long period without being able to form another relationship (well that’s how it felt at least) compounded my feelings of loneliness.
I think the truth is it highlighted a low level of self esteem that meant loneliness filled the gap because standard things like the end of a relationship and periods of living on my own felt like really tough things to deal with. It’s also that you think everyone else is dealing much better with this “life stuff” and that you’ll be seen as silly or unable to cope (our own minds really can be our worst enemies a lot of the time!).
I haven’t experienced feelings of loneliness for quite a long time now. I realised a while ago that loneliness had been something I’d lived with for most of my life up until my early thirties – which included the feeling of being “alone despite being in a room full of people” (which is a cliché but isn’t a bundle of laughs in real life!).
“At its worst, loneliness and low self esteem ganged up on me and created a breeding ground where suicidal thoughts can appear”
So right now, feelings of loneliness seem distant, but I lived with it for a long time, and it had an inevitable impact on my mental wellbeing which I can see now looking back.
For me, at their worst, my feelings of loneliness manifested themselves by giving me suicidal thoughts. Admitting that to myself, and being able to tell other people, is a pretty recent thing for me. I didn’t tell anyone at the time because no one talked about it – or so it seemed. Fortunately, the lovely people around me helped me out of the depths of it and the thoughts went away – despite my mind’s best attempts to push people away.
More generally it was the lack of self-worth and feelings of “no one will want to talk to me” or “I have nothing interesting to say”. What I found out, in terms of finally pulling out of it, was that friends and relatives saw me as a very closed person unable to share my feelings, whilst the reality was, I just felt like I didn’t know how to talk to people about it – even though I was holding down jobs where I spoke to people all day every day!
As simple as it might sound, the key thing that helped me was talking to people. I can still feel how scary that was and it can still take me too long to fess up when I’m struggling to this day. The internal monologue can still dig out the old tape loop that says, “no one is interested in you”.
What also very much helped was a technique that therapists use, which is to think yourself into a situation where you want to help an important person in your life and what you’d say to them. Then you turn it around and say you want to help them because they are ace! Therefore, there must be something good about you because this ace person wants to be in your life! There’s a lot to be said for helping others as a way of helping yourself. I wish I’d discovered this a lot sooner.
We’re all different so I’d never impose what works for me on anyone else but, what I would say is that, if you are experiencing feelings of loneliness, you are experiencing something that is a very real threat to your health that is very common and more and more recognised. You are allowed to feel this way because you are human, but you are also allowed to tell somebody somewhere that you feel like this.
It will likely be scary at first but sharing with others is the right thing to do and people actually do want to help you.
Anyone of any age can be lonely, I worry about young people the most at the moment because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I was lucky when I was struggling with loneliness that there were multiple people around me that were great and wanted to listen to me and help.
I would also suggest focusing on whatever it is that brings you joy. A type of music, a particular author, sewing or crochet perhaps, or even a specific online game. Whatever it is, if you have internet access there is a community out there who enjoy the same things that you do that are possibly trying to make connections as well.
“Opening up and talking to loved ones was what really helped me.”
If you too are looking for support with your mental health, please contact our helpline on 0121 262 3555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org