Senior physiotherapist, Emma Lee, has written a personal and poignant story about loneliness. She shares her own story, offers useful support to those of us who may need it and suggests something we can all do to help us understand each other.

Feeling lonely isn’t necessary an indicator of mental health problems but the two things are closely linked. Life events can often impact on loneliness such as bereavement, relationship breakdowns, changing jobs or retiring, and relocation. They all cause tangible change to our circumstances and as such are perhaps seen as acceptable reasons to feel lonely. But it’s not always as simple as that. If you’re struggling with your mental health the world can feel like a pretty lonely place too. The charity Mind describe loneliness as the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met.

Even when you’re busy and constantly with people, sometimes it can exaggerate the loneliness if it feels like those people don’t understand and empathise with you. To quote Roxy Music, ‘loneliness is a crowded room…all together, all alone’. Regardless of the number of people you’re physically with, it can feel so isolating when you think you’re wired differently to everyone else. And even more so if you feel you can’t talk about it for fear of being misunderstood.

When my OCD symptoms were at their worst I withdrew from my friends and family. I was afraid and ashamed of my own thoughts. Because of the nature of the thoughts I was having I also steadily became a bit of a hermit, cutting myself off from the outside and losing most of my independence. Some of my obsessions were around harm so my natural instinct to reduce the risk of harm was to avoid seeing people. (It seemed to make sense at the time). The physical distance from the people I loved as well as the emotional distance made me feel completely alone in a terrifying world.

Aside from self-imposed isolation, the fear of being stigmatised is still a huge issue for people struggling with mental health so we don’t talk about it. Some people just don’t get it. And if you have a negative experience where you’ve felt judged or misunderstood or like your feelings aren’t valid, it can take a lot to work the courage back up to try again. I’ve talked before about when I originally sort help for my mental health problems. I felt dismissed and like a fraud for wanting help. It was difficult to try again. But luckily I did and got the help I needed.

If you feel like you’re not being listened to or that people don’t understand, it could be an opportunity to educate and challenge. I appreciate that’s easiest said than done. It’s still hard for me to challenge stereotypes on OCD but I’m consciously trying. When someone says they like being tidy and that they are ‘so OCD’ it causes a fire of emotion in me. When something is so important to you it can hurt when it’s not understood or seemingly mocked. My natural response is to shut up and just quietly think less of someone. But that means they’ll go on thinking their interpretation is correct. And a lack of awareness does not mean someone doesn’t care or has meant to offend. It’s difficult to be that person that says ‘erm, actually, that’s a huge stereotype and not everyone with OCD likes to be neat and tidy’. But it’s really important, so I try.

In my head I have my speech planned along the lines of ‘it’s funny that’s still the image most people have. I have OCD and I’m really messy. It’s a common misconception that it’s about being tidy, it’s actually about having obsessive thoughts that cause distress to the point you try and control them with compulsions. It can be really debilitating.’ However my delivery is still a bit clumsy, and it often comes out a bit Alan Partridge-esque (‘I have mental health problems’) but still, it starts a conversation. My advice would be to ease into a conversation. Don’t go straight in with ‘I was genuinely scared I was going to burn the house down’.

So we can start to talk more openly about mental health but does it help to feel less lonely? It’s certainly a start. And you never know what other people have going on. Initiating a conversation will at the least raise awareness and you may even find someone on your wave length or someone who’s been wanting to start a conversation but didn’t quite have the courage yet.

If you’re feeling lonely it’s also a good indicator to practice regular self-care. Make a list of things that make you feel good and make time for them. The NHS Better Health website has a wealth of resources available. https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/lifes-challenges/loneliness/

So as an action for mental health awareness week, perhaps you could try to open up. Whether it’s about your own feelings or whether it’s to start to understand someone else’s. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know you could try a therapist or peer support service. And if you don’t really understand someone else’s mental health problems and don’t feel able to ask them, Google them. Just try anything. It could change someone’s world.

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