Mental Health Awareness Week – Loneliness, Empathy and the Importance of Listening

14th – 20th May, marks Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, supported by the Mental Health Foundation. We all have mental health – just as we all have physical health – and a huge variety of factors affect how we experience these types of health, which can very often be intertwined.

I’ve often been asked what we can do to help those who are struggling with their mental health, a friend, a work colleague or partner. There is no one clear answer to this, and all I can do is draw from my own experiences, and what worked for me when I felt like I needed help. A couple of years ago I found myself in a situation where I was going through a relationship break down, my job involved me being on the road a lot, and I was living in a house that I hated. Nothing felt like it was going to plan, and underpinning it all was a deep sense of loneliness.

I was stuck in Groundhog Day; waking in an empty house, to sit in an empty car, to stay in an empty hotel, and then return to my empty house. Everything felt relentless. I felt like my reserves were utterly depleted and the smallest incident left me feeling unable to cope. It was so hard – and so is admitting this feeling of loneliness. Loneliness is seen as so much of a problem here in the UK, that a commission on loneliness was established, delivering a series of recommendations, backed by Prime Minister Theresa May, on how to tackle the isolation suffered by around nine million Britons. The Government accepted the recommendations and has now even created the first minister for loneliness, Tracey Crouch.

The 2017 report found that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with doctors warning that lonely people are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely as those who do not suffer feelings of isolation. Being lonely it seems, is a lot more worrying for your health than obesity. Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, lower immunity, increase depression, lower overall subjective well-being and increase the stress hormone cortisol (at sustained high levels, cortisol gradually wears your body down). Loneliness affects many of us at one time or another: recent research shows only 22% of us never feel lonely and one in ten of us (11%) say we feel lonely often.

For me, loneliness wasn’t a physical situation of not being around people, I’ve always been fortunate enough to feel comfortable in my own company, and enjoy going out for dinner or to the cinema by myself. My loneliness stemmed from feeling totally isolated from genuine and meaningful contact with people – I lacked real connection. Even though I was alone a lot, I also had plenty of time around people;  I stood in front of rooms full of people delivering training, I surrounded myself with friends, I sat in busy cafes working away at my laptop, but the loneliness didn’t subside. Despite being surrounded by people I still felt alone. Feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem increases your chance of feeling lonely – and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health.

During this time I felt like all my friends were put in a sieve. Everyone I knew was poured in like I was draining a pot full of boiling pasta into a colander. Some fell through with the clouded water, and some stayed clinging on the top for me. There was one main difference between the friends who helped and those who didn’t – empathy. The ones who hung on with me, helping my spiralling sadness to subside, were the ones who listened, who genuinely empathised and nurtured that connection with me.

The word empathy is bandied around a lot, but it refers to that deep connection when you put yourselves in another’s shoes, and truly ask yourself how would you feel if it were you. When you experience things through their eyes, not externally, but actually inside of their skin. When you focus on feelings not logic, when you sense with your heart, not your head.

When you truly listen – and not just wait for your turn to talk.

That is a vulnerable space to be in. You’re allowing yourself to feel what they’re feeling, and sometimes that’s scary. But this is where true connection happens, and this is when a conversation with one person can alleviate all that loneliness.

This Mental Health Week, focus on those real connections. Pick up the phone, drop in on that person, just be there. Be patient, focus on their needs and their time plans. Do not jump to offer answers, suspend your own judgments and critiques and focus on connection. Make a cup of tea for them, listen, and I mean truly listen, make yourself vulnerable and put yourselves in their shoes. Sit in that dark place with them, and when they are ready to move, stand up with them.

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