When Gabi Field celebrated turning 30 in January 2019, she was surrounded by friends and family.
However, in the days following her landmark birthday, Gabi reflected on how life wasn’t what she expected.
‘I remember having conversations with friends about turning 30,’ the now 33-year-old says. ‘We’d have our own houses, be married, and have children. I had none of that stuff.’
That thought led to a spiral of negative thinking, and by June 2019, Gabi was experiencing symptoms of severe depression. She had lost two stone, was always tired, and had dry skin and hair.
‘I didn’t really understand what was going on,’ Gabi remembers. ‘I couldn’t talk about it because of fear of what other people would think about me.’
She admits she was also worried people would disapprove of her depression given she had no ‘reason’ to feel low.
After all, Gabi had a great job working as a fundraising lead in a charity, lived in a lovely flat, and had a lot of friendships. ‘I was good at putting a mask on and covering everything up, but I can remember thinking I have never felt so alone,’ she recalls.
While feeling lonely can be a normal part of life, thousands in the UK have experience a profound, long-lasting loneliness that goes on to affect their mental health.
From 2016-2017, 5% of adults in the UK reported feeling ‘often or always’ lonely. During the pandemic, that percentage rose to 7.2%, with one in four adults admitting they feel lonely either some or all of the time. That is 3.7 million adults struggling with loneliness. Yet one in five hide these feelings from others.
This year, the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week highlighted the links between mental health and loneliness, hoping to dispel the stigma that there is shame linked to the feeling of loneliness.
‘Our relationships with other people help us cope with life’s many problems,’ explains Catherine Seymour, Head of Research at the Mental Health Foundation. ‘It’s reassuring and comforting to know there are people who care about us and will support us. Without that, we may feel overwhelmed by our problems and find it harder to cope with our daily lives. At this point, our mental health is suffering. Loneliness is associated with depression and anxiety and is also linked to an increase in suicidal thoughts.’
It was only after Gabi’s best friend clocked she had lost a lot of weight, that she admitted her feelings. From there, her friend persuaded Gabi to see the doctor with her in July 2019, who prescribed her antidepressants.
However, the meds only made Gabi feel worse and after eight weeks she decided to wean herself off them.
‘This is when things got even harder,’ she recalls. ‘I was having suicidal thoughts and there was a noise in my head that never disappeared. I also continued to lose weight.’
Although Gabi managed to drag herself into work every day, she started relying on small amounts of alcohol in the evenings to cope with the dark thoughts swirling around in her mind.
‘The loneliness was horrid for me,’ Gabi admits. ‘I was still doing my job, going out with people, attending wedding and birthday parties – I did all of that and nothing changed. But I remember sitting in a room or being at work and thinking that no one understood what was going on. No one knew what was going on in my head.’
Gabi says she always thought loneliness was ‘sitting in a room all by yourself’, but her experience ‘spun loneliness on its head’ and made her realise someone could be intensely lonely even when surrounded by people.
It was in the autumn of 2019, that Gabi hit her lowest point. ‘It wasn’t that I wanted to die, I just couldn’t work out how to get out of this to live,’ she admits. ‘And it felt like no one could help me. That was really lonely.’
Loneliness and social isolation are not necessarily synonymous, according to Catherine Seymour. A person can feel lonely while surrounded by people, and likewise, someone may be socially isolated, but not feel lonely.
‘Loneliness is the mismatch between the relationships we have and the relationships we want,’ she explains. ‘It can happen if we don’t feel a close connection with any of the people around us. We can cope with shorter periods of loneliness. It’s longer ones, lasting months or years, that are more likely to harm our mental health.
In November 2019, Gabi’s best friend dragged her back to the doctor for the second time and she was referred to mental health services.
As she awaited an appointment with a psychologist, Gabi began to tell people about what was going on, starting with a select group of people in work and close friends. ‘It felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders,; she admits. ‘They were all really supportive.’
In June 2020, Gabi decided to pay privately to see a psychologist as she was still waiting for an appointment with one from the NHS. Nearly two years on, even though there are days that aren’t ‘great’, Gabi now knows she can talk to people about what she is feeling.
‘I think a lot of people think I’m fixed and cured now and back to being Gabi, but the reality is I’m still living with it.’
The difference is she now has people who will pop around for a cup of tea when they sense she feels her mental health start to slip.
Although not every person feeling lonely will be suicidal, it is third most common topic people contact the Samaritans helpline about. ‘As loneliness is different for everyone, the calls vary,’ explains Joe Potter, Policy Manager at Samaritans.
‘Sometimes it is the main reason why people contact us, with others, loneliness isn’t their key concern but a part of the challenges they’re facing. During the pandemic mentions of loneliness have increased, especially with calls from women. Men are still more likely to mention loneliness, but the gap has narrowed.’
Although anyone can experience loneliness, there are some groups more at risk than others. ‘People over the age of 50 are more likely to be lonely if they do not have someone to open up to, are widowed, are in poor health, on a low income, are unable to do the things they want, feel that they do not belong in their neighbourhood or live alone,’ says Abi Wood, CEO of Age UK London.
A survey by the Mental Health Foundation also found one in ten people aged 65 and over reported feeling lonely some or all of the time, often making them feel worried or anxious.
‘The social isolation felt by some older people is a long-term problem that’s existed for years,’ says Wood. ‘Good community infrastructure is key to addressing social isolation because it enables older people to get out and connect with friends and family, meet new people and maintain friendships that are vital to their wellbeing.’
Su Rycroft had never felt lonely until her marriage of thirteen years ended in August 2019.
‘I didn’t know how I was going to live,’ the 65-year-old says, recalling lonely months following the divorce. ‘We would always text or call each other even when he was working away from home. I always had that contact there.’
Couple friends she had disappeared off the scene following the split too. ‘You lose friends with a divorce,’ Su explains. ‘The people we used to go for dinner or the cinema with – when you’re not a couple, they’re not interested.’
Then, just as Su was attempting to adjust to living on her own, the pandemic struck. ‘I think the first time it hit me I was totally on my own was when I had to go out shopping for the first time,’ she remembers.
As she stood in the queue to get into Asda, with her gloves and mask on, she looked around and became filled with fear of how the world had changed. ‘I had a bit of a panic attack, but didn’t have anybody to help me through it. There were couples and families together and I was there with my little old trolley thinking I’ve got no one to shop with.’
In the first twelve months of the pandemic, Su grappled with her loneliness. ‘I got very, very depressed,’ she recalls.
Her stress led to worsening symptoms of chronic pain in her back and shoulders. ‘I didn’t want to get up in the mornings, and if I did, I just wanted to go back to bed. Sleep was my form of escapism. Shut the door, pull the curtains, and go to sleep.’
Sleep was how Su managed to suppress her overwhelming feelings of isolation. ‘I used to look out of the window and see couples going for their daily walks and thought it must be nice to have somebody to lean on, constant company,’ she remembers.
‘If one of you is down, the other person makes you a cup of tea. Even if they couldn’t go out, you could still have meals together. Still sit out in the garden. When you’re on your own, you haven’t got a partner to ask their opinion or cheer you up. You’re literally just in a quiet house.’
Su’s saving grace during those months were her wide array of animals – three cats, a bearded dragon, a leopard gecko, jumping spiders, millipedes, and isopods. ‘They were the reason I got out of bed,’ she admits. ‘Otherwise, I might have just stayed in bed all day, got up for a bath, and went back to bed again.’
As the one-year anniversary of Covid rolled around in March 2021, Su decided she couldn’t live another year like the last. ‘It was such a crappy year – the worst of my life,’ she says. ‘I think you either go under or start pulling yourself up a bit. I knew the only way I wouldn’t feel lonely was if I mixed with people.’
‘I could feel myself becoming lonelier by the day’
My downward spiral of loneliness started in March 2020 when COVID gripped the world with fear,’ says Gareth Monaghan.
‘I was working for ScotRail, based at Central Station in Glasgow. Leaving the house at 5:30am, I walked along empty streets, to get on an empty train, to arrive at empty station. I worked until 3pm and repeated the same lonely trip home, only to arrive to an empty house.
I was petrified my kids, 10-year-old twins at the time, and partner would catch COVID from me being out and about, so we decided they would live with the children’s’ nan. We didn’t know anything about the virus at the time and wanted to be extra cautious, but it was to my detriment.
I could feel myself becoming lonelier by the day, but put a brave face on for my kids, colleagues, and friends. I was everyone’s confidant and felt I had to keep strong for them.
Colleagues, people I saw at work, and friends would tell me about their struggles with mental health and I would always be the first to listen. But inside, I was withering under the weight of my own loneliness and depression.
I’d sometimes stand outside the gate of the house my kids were staying at just to get a glimpse of them in person. They cried each time they saw me because they couldn’t hug or spend more time with me.
Nights were the worst times. I attempted to distract myself with tv and phone calls, but it wasn’t working. I felt so alone and very low, trying to battle with my intruding thoughts, but losing every time and growing increasingly tired in the fight.
I decided I didn’t want to live anymore. No one expected it. No one even knew I was struggling. But I was done fighting and one evening in June, I attempted to act on suicidal thoughts. Luckily, I had a phone call from a family member who immediately came to the house when they could tell something was wrong.
After staying one night in hospital, I was released back home as there wasn’t enough space in hospital for me to stay longer. I got home and went straight to the local park to attempt and shake the suicidal feelings that were still swirling around in my brain.
That night, my family moved back home and I contacted Samaritans for support.
In the days following my attempt, I started to talk more openly about my feelings and experiences with the people closest to me. I had never done that before. Never told them I felt lonely inside. ScotRail connected me to a therapist, giving me the space to openly explore how I was doing.
I still have bad days, but on those bad days, I talk to people now. I don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed anymore about my mental health. I know I need people in my recovery. We all do.’
Su started volunteering at a local theatre and the English Heritage’s Osborne House. ‘I filled my week with things to do,’ Su says. Instead of looking at an empty week, she structured her days around volunteering opportunities where she could interact with other people. Her routine of seeing people and having purpose, along with the sunshine and gardening, have been a lifeline for Su.
In late November 2020, a survey among UK adults found that almost half of 18-24 year olds reported feeling lonely during lockdown. Around the same time, a YouGov poll surveyed adolescents, with results showing 69 percent of adolescents aged 13-19 saying they felt alone ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ in the last fortnight and 59 percent felt they often had no one to talk to.
‘Young people who are struggling with their mental health also often feel isolated or alone,’ says Deirdre Kehoe, Director of training and services at YoungMinds.
‘It can be hard to find friends who get you or can relate to your experiences. Social media can make young people feel extremely isolated, especially if they are being bullied or feel disconnected from the ‘perfect lives’ shown online. Even if you have loads of followers, it can feel like everyone else is surrounded by friends and loved ones and having a good time; this can make things feel much harder when you are feeling alone and not sure who to turn to for support.’
Bruno Ponty was bullied for being gay during most of his years at school.
‘In primary school, I had my head thrown against the door,’ he remembers. ‘On the first day of secondary school, someone passed by me and just said ‘gay’ to me. But everyone went through bullying. I didn’t get lonely from that because it does happen to most people. I just gravitated toward other people who were outsiders.’
When he was 16 and had completed his GSCEs in 2013, Bruno planned to start pursuing A levels in French, history, art, and biology at a different school. However, it was around the same time that loneliness started creeping in and making itself at home in his life.
‘I felt the struggle to meet people, but didn’t fit in,’ the now 25-year-old recalls. ‘My mental health wasn’t great at that time either and I was barely in for my classes. I was anxious about the work and the environment didn’t feel supportive. I was having really bad stomach aches, often throwing up from anxiety. I spent most of the days at home on my own. It was quite lonely.’
For two years, Bruno tried to complete his assignments and show up to school, but just felt he couldn’t keep up, eventually stopping altogether right as he turned 18. ‘After that, I was just lost,’ Bruno says, thinking back to endless days of sitting around in his house alone, with no one to talk to about what he was feeling.
‘I remember staying awake until six in the morning, watching tv, scrolling on social media, or listening to music, and then sleeping all day. I wasn’t interacting with anyone, not even my family.’
Feeling confused about what to do with his future, Bruno felt like all of the people his age were either going to university or starting jobs while he hid away behind the four walls of his London family home. ‘I was struggling to figure out how this could happen to me. That I wasn’t doing anything in life and was so lonely. I felt paralysed and didn’t see a way out.’
After a year of being housebound due to poor mental health, Bruno decided he needed to make some money and took a retail job. ‘It pushed me out of my comfort zone,’ he says.
He then went on to get an access to university diploma to then attend the University of Nottingham, where he studied law. ‘I literally just got offered a paralegal job the other day,’ he says proudly.
However his feelings of loneliness haven’t gone away over the years. Bruno, who currently lives at home with his parents, admits he has just distracted himself with work so he doesn’t think about the fact that he rarely sees people.
‘I still feel lonely,’ he admits. ‘Even though we’ve got all this technology, it doesn’t strengthen that connection between people. It all feels surface level. Connecting virtually just soothes the loneliness for a while, but it doesn’t make it go away.’
Joe Potter from the Samaritans says there are some things we can do to try to help ease feelings of loneliness ‘and feel more connected to ourselves and others.’
He adds: ‘These seemingly simple steps can have a big impact: talk about how you feel, be kind to yourself, connect with your community, spend time in nature and try not to compare yourself to others.’
Meanwhile Catherine Seymour advises that talking about loneliness is the only way to break the power it holds over mental health. ‘It will help reduce the shame that many of us feel about being lonely, which only adds to the burden it puts on our mental health,’ she explains.
‘We can also remind ourselves and each other about how precious our connections with other people are for our mental health, and care for those connections – for instance by keeping in touch and really taking an interest in other people.’
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