For the past few years, and largely to do with personal experiences, I have been thinking more and more about the influence of loneliness on mental health, and recent research is confirming my assumptions. According to an NPR article dated May 1, 2018:
“A nationwide survey by the health insurer Cigna underscores that. It finds that loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.”
While I was not at all surprised to read this, I also find it ironic. We live in a digital age where we can literally communicate with anyone across the globe. Not to mention that this planet is more increasingly populated by humans than ever before. And many of us feel more alone than ever in history.
According to this study, “More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And 2 in 5 felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.”
Two years ago, I moved to a larger city in hopes to not only experience a broader worldview, but also to increase my friend base, my community, and my tribe. I immediately joined a faith community, and began working with an incredible team where some of my closest friendships have been cultivated. In the fall of 2016, I joined a support group to process my grief and loss of my marriage, relationship and death of a dream. I currently live where I have more people within one square mile of me than I have had my entire life living in a small town and rural communities. Even here in this place there are times I feel completely alone, and yet I know I am not alone in this.
Last week my good friend and I were discussing this feeling of loneliness. She is in the best dating relationship she has ever experienced, and she feels so alone. I can identify because even in my ten year marriage, I felt severely alone and isolated. That is one of the most interesting and scary factors of this phenomenon is that we can be in the best of relationships, surrounded by other people, having the time of our lives and still experience this feeling of complete isolation.
It is possible that my personal experience with loneliness may be primarily situational as I begin my journey of facing, accepting and treating my own attention deficit disorder or the fact that I am divorced and still learning how to be content in my singleness. But I would like to suggest that the problem is much larger and has more to do with societal influences and environmental stressors. When I walk through my city, scroll through social media, turn on the news or sit in a pew, I can see I am not alone in this.
I have heard many theories and ideas about the causes. Social media may be a common denominator, but I suggest it might be more complicated than this. Some suggest it is our independent society and our lack of physical touch or hugging. Some from my faith background may argue a lack of faith as being a cause. While I have found some comfort in my faith through difficult times, I cannot deny the fact that some of my loneliest seasons were while serving faithfully in a growing church community and much of my time was spent praying, reading scripture and “fellowshipping” with others on a daily basis. There were even Sunday mornings I distinctly recall from my memory giving a message to a congregation of 500 plus and walking to my car to return to my home feeling completely defeated and alone.
In my personal journey, I am learning that it matters less about a relationship, religious affiliation, a city’s population, or how many “friends” and followers you have on social media – loneliness knows no boundaries.
I do not intend to share this heavy topic as a doom and gloom observation, but more of an acknowledgement that we have a problem and the solution resides in each of us. While there may be larger societal contributing factors which need to change, change starts with you and me. Yes, the problem is bigger than you or I, but the solution can start with us. I am on a personal mission to address this epidemic by discovering helpful solutions and by doing all that I can to make sure others around me feel less alone. It is important that each person feels cared about and no amount of care is too much. We are never too much and always enough. I hope you find as much encouragement in this as I am feeling writing these words.
You may be reading this and some of what I have shared is resonating with you and your experience. I hope you can find comfort in knowing you are not alone in this. We may find it helpful to turn off social media for a while. We might consider picking up the phone and calling family or a close friend. Perhaps hugging more might be helpful. The other day, when dropping my son off at school, I asked him if he would like a 10 or 20 second hug. I was so delighted he chose the latter. There we stood in full embrace for 20 solid seconds when interrupted by another parent who had been holding the door for us. As embarrassing as that moment, the parent remarked he would hold the door for a hug any day. Check in with your loved ones on a regular basis.
Just know, dear friend, that you are truly not alone. There is hope and we must believe there is more than this.