We're in the grip of a loneliness epidemic, says new research, and Christmas can be the time when we feel it the most. A Consultant Psychiatrist has this advice on looking after your mental health at this time of year
It’s one of the most wonderful times of the year, but as the famous John Lewis Man on the Moon Christmas Advert demonstrated, it can also be one of the loneliest.
A year-long study by the Jo Cox Commission (named after the murdered MP) has opened up the conversation on social isolation, highlighting the fact that we're in the grip of a loneliness epidemic, despite being more digitally connected than ever. It found that nine million people across the UK are lonely, with the health consequences costing the economy £32 billion every year. According to Age UK , one million older people can go a month without speaking to anyone. But it's not just the elderly who are affected, mothers of young children can also feel cut off, the Jo Cox Commission study found.
This week Prof Jane Cummings, NHS England's chief nursing officer, has added her concerns to the debate, telling the BBC that a third of new mums claim to be lonely, while eight in 10 carers said they felt isolated.
"Loneliness has a devastating and life-threatening impact on people of all ages. For vulnerable groups, social isolation combined with the health dangers of colder weather is a lethal combination."
The BBC reported this week that being lonely and isolated was linked to increasing the risk of early death by a third, according to research.
At this time of year, the pressure to have the ‘perfect’ Christmas and take stock of what we may have (or have not) achieved this year, can merely highlight a sense of isolation and low mood.
“If one is feeling depressed, Christmas makes the feelings of depression more prominent because there is a dissonance between how one is supposed to feel during this festive season and how one is truly feeling inside,” says Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Rafael Euba of The London Psychiatry Centre . “Christmas does not make us depressed, but it highlights what may be missing in our lives, particularly if one is feeling isolated, or going through a difficult separation.”
As humans, we're not wired to be alone, which may be why feelings of isolation can have such devastating effects. “Human beings are designed to seek each other's company and to live in groups, " says Dr Euba.
“If we find ourselves isolated, it is imperative that we get out there and join a group of some kind: a club, a gym, an appreciation group, it doesn't matter, as long as it helps us transcend ourselves beyond the limits of our own minds,” he recommends. “If the isolation is due to an old feud or argument, Christmas will be the ideal time to solve it and build new bridges.”
Our love of social media doesn't help. Although our Instagram feeds are awash with images of people’s picture-perfect Christmas plans, it’s easy to forget that what we’re seeing is a filtered version of reality - more carefully crafted than just clicking ‘Valencia,’ ‘Hefe’ or ‘Mayfair.’ What’s presented is more often than not a strategic edit of what our favourite social media socialites want us to see, causing us to compare and despair and thereby increase feelings of isolation and inadequacy.
If you suspect that either yourself or a someone you know is suffering from depression or another mental health problem, an increase in fatigue and apathy could be the first symptoms to look out for.
“Difficulties sleeping and becoming withdrawn are typical signs of depression,” explains Dr Euba. “Lack of energy, pessimism and feeling generally anxious and apprehensive are also common complaints in depression. The main symptom, however, is an inability to enjoy life. Getting up in the morning can be a real struggle when life feels so dreary,” he adds.
“If someone close to you is depressed, you can try to persuade them to seek help. If they are lonely, well, they have you, so perhaps you could let them know that you care for their wellbeing. That will make them feel less lonely.”
Similarly, if you find your own symptoms are preventing you from enjoying life on a day-to-day basis, expert support could prove invaluable: “If the feelings of depression are more or less constant and pervasive, or if the depression is affecting your life to a significant extent and it is more than a mere bout of winter blues, talk to a professional. We are here to help.”
Thanks to Dr Rafael Euba, Consultant Psychiatrist, The London Psychiatry Centre, 72 Harley Street London W1.