Supporting Your Clients Through LonelinessMay 08, 2022
During the last few years of Covid, lockdowns and pandemic malaise, one thing has become abundantly clear: our communities, and our connections, are crucial for our wellbeing. When we were cut off from the ties that ordinarily bind us to those around us, a sense of creeping loneliness became all-pervasive for many of us. Even those of us who live with others.
One study found that by February 2021, 7.2% of adults (3.7 million) in the UK felt lonely 'often' or 'always', compared to 5% at the start of the pandemic.
And it’s no coincidence that with greater levels of loneliness, our collective mental health worsened: the effects of loneliness can actually be as damaging to our health as obesity, place us at greater risk of cognitive decline, and affect our ability to relate to others; something we know to be a crucial component of good mental health.
What is Loneliness?
Results from the BBC Loneliness Experiment in 2019 found that while loneliness means different things to different people, five of the most common descriptions of loneliness include:
- Having nobody to talk to
- Feeling disconnected from the world
- Feeling left out
- Not feeling understood
When it comes to supporting your clients through feelings of loneliness, it’s a good idea to really get to the bottom of what loneliness means to them; that way, you’ll be best placed to help them.
And despite common misconceptions, it’s not the elderly who are most at risk of loneliness.
Who is Most at Risk of Loneliness?
Feeling lonely from time to time is completely normal. But when loneliness is a constant state, it can have an enormous impact on our mental health and overall wellbeing. Anyone can experience loneliness, but the people most at risk include those who are widowed, single, unemployed, disabled, or living alone. There’s also a higher risk of experiencing loneliness if you’re: aged 16-24; a carer; living in rented accommodation; from an ethnic minority community, or LGBTQ+.
There’s also the added complication that anyone who suffers from anxiety – particularly social anxiety – can find themselves at risk of loneliness, as the nature of anxiety can make it difficult to get out and socialise, or to meet new people.
If you have clients who fit into any of these categories, loneliness is always something to look out for. Of course, one of the biggest challenges you face in supporting someone through loneliness is that the stigma surrounding feeling lonely can make it hard for people to open up. As a mental health professional, it’s up to you to establish a relationship of trust with your client, and to ask the right questions that allow them to confide in you.
How Can You Support Your Clients Through Loneliness?
Because loneliness means different things to different people, there’s no single approach that will work for everyone. Instead, you need to develop a good relationship with your client, and really get to the bottom of what’s making them feel lonely in their life – paying particular attention to their unique circumstances.
Because loneliness remains so stigmatised, it’s really important that you make your client feel comfortable, and help them to realise that there is absolutely no shame in experiencing loneliness – particularly as young people (often thought of as the most sociable demographic) are actually the most at risk group when it comes to feeling lonely.
There will likely be other things that you must take into consideration when helping your clients to navigate their way through loneliness: if they’re experiencing anxiety or depression, for example, these conditions can make socialising – and socialising consistently – more much difficult. You’ll therefore need to address the underlying issues that are contributing to a state of loneliness, rather than addressing loneliness in and of itself.
People who are experiencing extreme loneliness will often need significant one-to-one help and support before they feel able to reach out and connect with individuals, wider groups, or the community at large. You can be that support – and the great news is, there are lots of ways that loneliness can be tackled.
You might want to encourage your clients to improve on the quality of the existing relationships in their lives (being aware that this may not always be possible), consider their own attitudes and expectations in relationships, and address any work they may need to undertake in relation to their communication and social skills.
As a mental health professional, you are uniquely placed to help spot loneliness in the people you work with – and while there are plenty of assessments you can carry out with your clients, one of the most important questions is simply this:
‘How often do you feel lonely’?
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