Loneliness and mental health

Loneliness can be both a cause and a result of mental illness.  We know that when people are lonely, they’re more vulnerable to common mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, paranoia or panic attacks.  These conditions can then cause people to become even more isolated and lonely, leading to a downward spiral of unhappiness and despair.

How poor mental health can lead to loneliness

There are many different reasons why having a mental health problem can exacerbate people’s experience of loneliness. These include:

  • low self-esteem as a result of the condition causing withdrawal from others
  • experiencing stigma or discrimination
  • having an anxiety or phobia that makes it difficult to leave the house
  • taking medication that causes shaking or slurred speech which is misunderstood
  • losing a job and the self-esteem and sense of belonging that can go with it
  • behaving aggressively because of the condition which can strain relationships.

Social causes of poor mental health

While anybody of any social class or background can develop a mental health condition, we also know that poor mental health is related to factors such as poor transport, neighbourhood disorganisation and racial discrimination[1].

“There’s an element of shame to do with mental health – one’s sense of self-worth is reduced. People don’t want to spend time with you.” (Bill, who has had depression.)

Wealth inequality is another factor. The World Health Organisation has found that unequal societies, such as Britain, have more pronounced levels of mental health problems than more equal ones[2].

This is true at a local level too. Dr Dave Furze, has researched what happens where neighbourhoods at the bottom of the UK Index of Multiple Deprivation are in close proximity to those in the top two per cent[3].  “There’s increased stigma and isolation and there’s often an associated lack of hope,” he says. “When people see those nearby living in big houses and driving fast cars, they feel there’s no way out and they just sort of accept it – unless there is some kind of catalyst for community development.”

Combatting the loneliness that causes and is caused by mental health conditions is not just about dealing with individuals, however, important that is.  It also demands paying attention to the inequalities that lead to poor housing, poor transport and unequal community services and facilities. The church is well placed to be a presence in areas where there is need for friendly spaces through which people can belong.

People with mental health conditions say what they need to feel less alone

“Gardening. Being able to plant things and watch things grow, especially if this is done with other people.”

“The existence of people of good will who want to understand what it’s like for someone else and who can get them to reach a level of relationship that’s right for them.”

“Having somewhere to go, that’s near with friendly people. When you have a mental health condition, there’s a fence that goes round you.  You can very easily get into the habit of getting isolated and never leaving the house. It happens so quickly.”

 [1] Singleton N, Bumpstead R, O’Brien M, Lee A, Meltzer H, Psychiatric Morbidity Among Adults Living In Private Households, 2000 London: The Stationery Office p77, (2001)

[2] Prevention Of Mental Disorders Geneva: World Health Organisation p29, (2004)

[3] Buckinghamshire Sure Start Partnership: Deprivation Amongst Affluence (2000)

This is the second of a series of posts on loneliness. It is based on Loneliness Accident or Injustice by Jo Ind, a joint publication from the Diocese of Oxford (Board of Mission) and the Archway Foundation.