Last reviewed 5 May 2022

Sometimes being alone is great. At other times it is painful and debilitating. The Mental Health Foundation’s “Mental Health Awareness Week” from 9–15 May 2022 will stripe away feelings of shame, depression and defeat … with everyone invited to take part. Jon Herbert reports.

The pandemic has left significant legacies. For many people, working remotely from home has opened up welcome and long-lasting opportunities. For others who draw strength from workplace companionship and camaraderie, it may have marked out a negative path to loneliness.

No-one is alone in being lonely

Most people experience periods in their lives where, depending on personal circumstances and traits, the shadow of loneliness can be extremely unpleasant and a precursor for poor mental health.

While it may seem that the rest of the world is having a much better time, millions of ordinary people regularly share this negative experience. What they lack for many different reasons is the ability to get together and communicate.

Mental Health Awareness Week

The Mental Health Foundation recognised this widespread problem in 2001 which when chronic or unnecessarily long-term ruins many lives; its response was to create the modern awareness week.

For more than two decades, the foundation has set an appropriate annual theme, organised the campaign that is now one of the UK’s and world’s largest awareness events, and hosted the week.

Why loneliness?

Loneliness now affects an increasing number of people in the UK, and had a huge impact on physical and mental health during the pandemic.

The foundation says connecting to other people and communities is fundamental to protecting our mental health. Via its search for better ways to tackle the loneliness epidemic, it believes that we all play a key part (www.mentalhealth.org.uk).

Which is why in May 2022, it will not only raise awareness of loneliness’ impact on our mental wellbeing, but also look at practical steps that can be taken towards a mentally healthy society.

2022 resources

For people keen to take part, a series of resources has been created. These include:

Social media links include:

Why loneliness is the 2022 awareness theme

The foundation’s CEO, Mark Rowland, has been open about his own experiences of loneliness and invites everyone who may secretly be in the same boat to share their stories, end the loneliness stigma, and become part of a modern movement to tackle loneliness.

He describes how the feeling of loneliness can be crushing, making it hard to keep in contact with friends and family at the time they are needed most. The danger is that without help loneliness can gnaw away at our sense of self-worth and belonging.

Loneliness is not about the number of friends we have, he adds, or the time we spend on our own. Nor is it something that happens when we reach a certain age.

Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want, he explains. And that means it can be different for all of us.

The 2022 plan

The awareness week this year will give loneliness the attention it deserves — bringing it out from the shadows where it often hides. The foundation will release research during the week to identify and highlight embedded misunderstandings and prejudices that surround loneliness.

It will also show why the length of time we experience loneliness is important in the effects it can have on our mental health. At the same time, the week will explore the shame that is often felt, how many people struggle to talk about loneliness, and its destructive effects on mental health.

The campaign event will also be an opportunity to ask how we can reduce loneliness while learning to live with Covid-19 in different ways. In tandem, the foundation will release a policy briefing on actions that national and local government can take to encourage more human connections.

These messages and ideas will then be taken directly to MPs in Westminster; representations will also be made to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Loneliness and mental health

Loneliness is a key indicator of poor mental health, foundation research shows. Being connected to other people in a way that helps us to feel valued is fundamental to protecting mental health.

Unfortunately, long-term feelings of loneliness are linked to higher rates of mortality and poorer physical health outcomes. This has been shown clearly in the well-known Harvard Study of Adult Development).

Since 1938, the study has tracked 268 undergraduates and their children to see loneliness’ impact on physical and psychological traits in social life, IQ, and how we flourish. It found that the “warmth of our relationships throughout life had the greatest impact on our life satisfaction and health”.

The conclusion is that “… embracing community helps us live longer and be happier”.

Other useful Harvard links are “The secret to happiness? Here’s some advice from the longest-running study on happiness” and “Good genes are nice, but joy is better”.

Covid-19 brought us all closer to loneliness

One of the few upsides of the pandemic is that it emphasised our need for each other. The “Mental Health in the Pandemic” study showed that Covid-19 brought the experience of loneliness closer to millions; during the lockdowns loneliness reached almost three times pre-pandemic levels.

But loneliness was not experienced in the same way across communities. People with long-term physical conditions, on lower incomes, and with existing mental health problems, were more likely to experience loneliness compared to the general UK population.

Interestingly, older people’s risk of loneliness was influenced by factors such as whether they were digitally connected.

Helping to bring loneliness into the light

Even in the deepest moments, there is a lot people who see themselves as being alone can do during the campaign, the foundation says. It strongly urges people to get in touch with a friend or neighbour they have not spoken to in a while.

It also encourages everyone to look at and share its podcasts, animations, personal stories, social posts, research — plus policy asks and tips that will be published during the week.

Another recommendation is that teachers and pupils use its “Loneliness School Pack” to explore the theme in schools, and download the “ Wear it Green Fundraising Pack” to show support for the week.

Most of all, it wants to hear individual stories of loneliness (using the hashtag #IveBeenThere and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek) to help reduce the taint and challenge stereotypes about who experiences loneliness and how it really affects us.

Previous Mental Health Awareness Week themes

In recent years, Mental Health Awareness Week has focussed on:

  • 2019 — Body image and mental health

    Foundation research found that 30% of all adults were so stressed by body image and appearance at some point that they felt overwhelmed, or unable to cope. That is almost 1 in every 3 people.

    The “Mind Over Mirror” campaign focusing on the impact of self-image on mental health for young people, parents and adults who experience body concerns.

  • 2020 — Kindness campaign

    Some 63% of UK adults say that other people being kind to them has a positive impact on their mental health; the same proportion agree that being kind to others has the same effect.

  • 2021 — Nature and mental health

    Connecting with nature is good for your mental health, can reduce stress, and will lift your mood. The foundation looked at the link between nature and mental health — why it matters, how we can connect more, and how some people experience the benefits.

Takeaways

Loneliness can be miserable and debilitating. In fact, most people report feeling the disturbing symptoms of being unpleasantly alone at some point, or points, in their lives.

One of the negative aspects of the condition is that loneliness can seem intensely personal, making it difficult to appreciate that millions of others are feeling the same.

While for most people this is likely to be a temporary phase, for others prolonged and chronic loneliness can lead on to mental health difficulties. However, effective remedies are available.

To help tackle this problem at source — which has been exacerbated for many workers by recent, and in some cases continuing, remote working online — the Mental Health Foundation which has run Mental Health Awareness Week since 2001 has dedicated its 2022 theme to loneliness; this website offers many links to useful campaign resources.

The week will work in two ways. It will encourage everyone to share their loneliness experiences before key themes are taken to MPs at Westminster and the devolved administrations so that they can take policy steps to tackle the endemic problem.

However, there will also be many national and local sharing and advice opportunities that everyone can join and expand to help remove the perceived stigma and communication barriers associated with loneliness.

The key message is “you are not alone — take part!”