Reaching Out: Strategies for Addressing Loneliness
We've often heard the phrase, "alone but never lonely." Considered a triumph of the human spirit, it refers to those who are perhaps single or living alone but who still live full, connected lives.
Unfortunately, we don't often talk about the opposite phenomenon: being lonely but not alone. We need to talk about it because it's more prevalent than we realize and there are effective ways to combat this kind of loneliness.
A recent study at the University of California - San Francisco illuminated loneliness among older adults. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study conducted by the National Institute on Aging, the researchers explored the prevalence and impact of loneliness and found that although 43% of those surveyed reported feeling lonely, only 18% lived alone. This meant that a large number of older people were living with a spouse or other family members but still felt lonely. Moreover, loneliness was a significant predictor of physical decline or death.
While the study focused on older adults, I can't help but wonder whether similar results would be found in younger populations. The results may have serious implications for mental health professionals who work with depressed individuals.
Do you feel lonely even though you are not living alone? If so, please know that there are others who can relate to your feelings. Studies like the one described above are important to the public because they reveal that the seemingly rare is more common than we realize. They also provide an opportunity to highlight the compassionate options available for those dealing with loneliness:
Support groups. Typically gatherings of 8 - 12 people and a trained facilitator, support groups provide emotional support and practical information in a safe, confidential environment. To find a support group near you, contact your local mental health department and ask for a referral.
Helplines. Many mental health agencies have a toll-free helpline staffed by counselors trained to answer questions, provide emotional support, and link callers to local resources. For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers an information helpline at (800) 950-NAMI.
Online communities. If attending a support group in your area isn't feasible, participating in an online community can be a great option. Online forums are available 24 hours a day and you can participate as much or as little as you feel comfortable. NAMI offers online discussion groups here.
By taking advantage of these resources, you don't have to feel so lonely. You'll find that there are others out there who understand how you're feeling, because they feel that way too. And by talking about it with each other (or with a trained helpline specialist), you can bolster your social connections and ultimately, your well-being.