On one of my seafront walks recently I noticed someone sitting by themselves on the beach, gazing out to sea – much like the person in the photo here.
Given my particular interest in suicide prevention I needed to make a judgement call as to whether this person seemed in distress and, if so, whether I would approach them. In this case they seemed just fine.
But it started me thinking – they were there alone, perhaps by choice, but maybe not.
I was on my own, but not lonely. I’d chosen to take a walk by myself. Although I enjoy the company of friends, family and colleagues, I enjoy time by myself, too – and, as an introvert, I actually need regular quiet time alone to rest and recharge.
That isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes feel lonely – I think we all do, and that it’s part of the human condition.
But occasional loneliness, like occasional low mood, is a very different thing from when either of these becomes a persistent, ongoing situation or condition.
The negative effects of loneliness on our health and well-being have been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and the increasing number of people of all ages suffering social isolation has been in the news a lot over that past few years.
Esther Rantzen summed it up nicely in an interview I saw quite a while ago where she was talking about The Silver Line (a 24-hour phone helpline providing information, friendship and advice for older people): “…plenty of us have people to do things with, but no-one to do nothing with.”
I come across this a lot with people who are bereaved, divorced, have recently moved area, or who have just left home and are now living a distance away (perhaps at university) for the first time.
And it’s not just older people who feel lonely – it can happen to us at any age. Loneliness and social isolation are much more prevalent today than many of us would like to believe.
Our loneliness isn’t always obvious or apparent to other people, either – who amongst us hasn’t, at least once, felt lonely either in a relationship or in the midst of a crowded room at a time when we feel that no-one else has noticed, is listening, or understands what we’re going through, or how we really feel?
It’s important that we recognise this in ourselves and do something about it – by taking action to address any imbalance in our lives, getting ourselves out and among other people, reaching out to friends and family or accessing professional help if we need it.
I posted an Instagram in December last year on ‘chatty cafes‘ and ‘chatter and natter’ tables within other spaces.
This is just one of the things we can do to help combat loneliness in ourselves and others – creating and using places where people out on their own can meet others, openly and safely, for a chat over a cuppa.
And there was an article in the independent last week talking about the ‘silent epidemic’ of loneliness and reporting the good news that, having piloted the concept, Costa Coffee are now rolling out ‘chatter and natter’ tables to 300 of their outlets in the UK.
I hope other chains will follow their lead. It would help the lonely to help themselves – and each other – and, most likely, bring in customers who might otherwise pass them by.
Definitely a win-win-win.