Loneliness and its Antidote
Elena Serrano, Senior Advisor

   Loneliness by Rudolf Brink

Loneliness is a hot item nowadays.  It is a state of being that needs to be researched and treated as a social illness that may lead to serious public health issues. It is interesting that The Economist, in a recent issue, includes a major article on the subject.  Its main point:  the lonely are not just sadder, but also are unhealthier and die younger.

Loneliness is difficult to define and even more difficult to measure.  It is, in essence, a perceived social isolation, of not belonging, of nobody caring for you, of nobody seeing you, all covered in a blanket of emptiness and despair.  It is assumed we have all felt it at one time or another, like in the death of a loved one,  experiencing a serious illness, or becoming aware of getting older and losing mobility.   Essentially, it is a disconnect between the realities of the social interactions that we have and those we would like to have.

Researchers and public health specialists consider loneliness to be a global issue, but it remains stigmatized to talk about. It is as if you have failed somehow, as if being inserted into this humanity of happy and connected people happened easily to everyone but you. So, both high-income and lower-income countries face the same challenge: how to locate the lonely. It is mainly for this purpose that Britain has established a Minister of Loneliness.

It is not only the elderly that suffer, it is also the young, who are particularly difficult to locate. Many of them are in transit to somewhere, and many – those in abusive relationships and unhappy marriages – do not appear lonely because they are not alone. Even children who have barely started school call in to say they feel isolated and alone, according to a hotline in Australia. This may have a devastating effect on their mental health, and may occasionally lead to some of the horrific crimes that heavily weigh on our communities.  

It is important not to confuse loneliness with solitude.  Solitude is a choice, and as we know from poets and writers and artists since the beginning of time, a source of enormous creativity and wealth of the spirit. 

So, why bring this up here? Because in spite of marriage, love, social media, enhanced technology, dating apps, chatty robots, telephone lines to call, and no matter how much time, energy, or money is channeled into easing it, loneliness can only be tackled at grassroots level. It is the community that will heal those who “do not belong” by holding them, only the community will know where they are and go to find them, and it is only the community that can connect them to each other, and in so doing ease their pain. It is the community that has the power to transform the health aspect of those affected into a more meaningful, healthy life.

I close these lines with a powerful piece of news coming out of a study by WHO that has been fixed in my heart and mind for some time now: during the games of the football World Cup, suicides decrease to almost zero. Why? Because all those watching, even if they were alone, felt a huge sense of community.