Loneliness and Social Isolation

Loneliness is something everybody experiences. While loneliness is a common feeling, it is often hard to cope with.

Loneliness is understood as ‘a negative feeling that arises when someone’s social needs are unmet by the quantity and quality of their current social relationships.’

Loneliness is a feeling of sadness or distress about being by yourself or feeling disconnected from the world around you. It may be felt more over a long period of time. It is also possible to feel lonely despite being surrounded by people.

Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted.

Loneliness and being alone or socially isolated are not the same. Social isolation is seen as the state of having minimal contact with others. It is being separated from other people and your environment. Sometimes this occurs through decisions we make ourselves, or because of circumstances. For example, doing a job that requires travel or relocation.

Social isolation and loneliness can be harmful to both mental and physical health.

There is evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase our likelihood of early death by 26%.

In a recent interview with Karl Geary, Irish actor, Gabriel Byrne talks about isolation and loneliness, topics that feature in his memoir, ‘Walking with Ghosts.’

Byrne thinks we are all isolated in our own particular ways. It may result from being physically separated from others, such as when a person lives in a remote area. It can also result from being emotionally removed from a community, such as when a person is unwilling to share their emotions with others to protect themselves from distress. Byrne discovered that creativity is an effective way to address feelings of isolation.

Byrne says,

‘I think one of the things that writing does, or reading or being exposed to art, it makes us feel less isolated and it makes us feel connected to the world.’

Byrne also accepts that he is not immune to loneliness. Its prevalence throughout society is widespread even though there are more humans and more opportunities to connect due to technology. He says,

‘In the book, I do acknowledge the fact that I have experienced loneliness in varying degrees, the loneliness of being out of step sometimes with everybody else and not feeling that I had anything in common, that I was other than…that I never felt I fitted in.’

There are many causes of loneliness. The following are but a sample.

  • Sometimes people (like Gabriel Byrne) feel lonely because they believe they are different from others or they believe people are indifferent to them. 
  • People tend to feel lonely during big life events, such as a divorce, moving to a new house or country, or the death of someone significant in a person’s life. 
  • Being the primary carer for someone close to you (parent or sibling) who is sick or has a disability can impact on your social calendar and limit the opportunities to mix with others.
  • Unemployment, receiving income support, and lack of satisfaction with financial situation are also substantial factors in the development of loneliness across age groups and gender.
  • The relationship between social media and loneliness is complex and depends on the individual and their life circumstances. The number of online friends appears less important than the quality and strength of the relationship.

Experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but it is the quality.

Even though the internet can bring us closer, it can also make us feel like we are not really talking to our friends and can leave us feeling lost and alone.

Feeling lonely is both complex and unique to each individual. Because it has no single common cause the solutions will vary dramatically.

Two recent news releases highlight how loneliness and social isolation, when combined with other factors, can have devastating consequences. One relates to the mental health challenges faced by crew members of Cruise Ships during the pandemic. The other focuses on the mental health crisis among long-haul truck drivers.

Staff on Cruise Ships:

When the COVID 19 pandemic began to take hold globally in March 2020, Cruise Ships were quickly identified as hot spots as any outbreak was difficult to contain. The Cruise Ship companies acted quickly to repatriate passengers, but crew members were not permitted to disembark. If crew members had been exposed to the virus they were required to quarantine. In some instances, it meant being stuck for nearly three weeks in an economy room, one that barely fit a bunk bed, desk, and minifridge, with a porthole window. The experience was emotionally suffocating.

Due to the complexities of repatriation and with many countries closing their borders, employees became frustrated and disheartened. Separated from families, confined mostly to tiny cabins, with no obvious legal recourse and at times no pay, they felt abandoned, with no sense of purpose and nothing to distract them. Even though it was said the crew were well cared for, the mental health of individuals was not monitored carefully, and training was deficient in dealing with the mental effects of isolation.

Jozsef Szaller had been working for Carnival Corp for several months. Crew members observed that he was becoming more withdrawn, preferring to use the open-air breaks to smoke on deck or grab a vodka soda from one of the bars. After an extended absence Szaller was found unresponsive in his room. He had taken his life.

Even before the pandemic, a study conducted in 2019 on the mental well-being of crew found that about a fifth of seafarers surveyed said they had suicidal thoughts. Szaller was not the only crew member to take his life. There were half a dozen other deaths which were probable suicide.

Long-haul truck drivers:

Truck drivers do not have it easy. Truck driving is a dangerous occupation with multiple stressors. However, isolation and loneliness are one of the main complaints from drivers, especially long-haul operators. They are often struggling under extreme financial pressures, battling health concerns including sleeplessness, and can become victims of violent attacks and payment disputes.

Given the nature of the job means there is little chance for meaningful interaction with another person, or to build relationships and friendships. Marriage breakdown and a feeling of dislocation from family life are common by-products of working long hours and never knowing when you will be home next.

Brian Williamson, the managing director of the Portland-based trucking company PortHaul, says,

“Truck drivers are about as socially isolated as you can get.”

Studies suggest that approximately 1 in 5 truck drivers will suffer from a mental health issue at some point in their careers. Loneliness on long interstate highways and country routes mean a lot of time alone with your thoughts and this can trigger anxiety, depression and in extreme cases suicide.  

A recent study found suicide had become the second leading cause of death for drivers under the age of 39.

Finding solutions to curb loneliness and social isolation, whatever the context, are challenging and require a collaborative approach. To establish the extent of the problem requires engaging with those most directly affected, such as the crew members discouraged and defeated by the quarantine regulations and the long-haul truck drivers burdened by psychological distress.

American writer Richard Bach says,

“The opposite of loneliness is not togetherness. It is intimacy.”

Richard Bach

Intimacy is the act of revealing your whole self to someone else and having them reciprocate. It is making connections, forming friendships, and providing opportunities to unburden. It requires courage to be intimate.

Whether you are a crew member of a ‘ghost ship,’ a truck driver on a lonely stretch of road, an aged care resident confined to your room, a returned serviceman battling PTSD, or a child with autism, the need is the same. The need for someone, a family member, or a professional counsellor, to stand by you, to understand the nature of your challenges, and to help you imagine a way forward.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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