The Mental Health Issue No One Talks About

The American Health and Retirement Study* estimates that the rate of loneliness is a high as 27% – 28% (or roughly one quarter) of the population.  It seems odd to me, therefore, that so few of my clients ever mention it as a reason for seeking therapy.  They will complain of feeling depressed or anxious, but I can count on the fingers of one hand those who admit to feeling lonely.

I find it curious that it is somehow more acceptable to admit to a mental illness than to admit to loneliness.

I believe this is because being lonely, in our society, is considered shameful–the consequence of some fundamental failing on our part.  We secretly believe those who are lonely are “losers” and we will go to any length to deny the painfulness of social isolation in our own lives, even to ourselves.  Many people do not even have words to describe what they feel, because the concept of loneliness is so threatening their families refused to discuss the subject whatsoever when they were growing up.

As if this were not bad enough, loneliness actually causes changes our brains, so we start to view others’ faces as threatening, even if their expression is neutral**.  In short, we start to look for rejection, even if it is not necessarily there, and this can make us more afraid to interact socially. Perhaps this accounts for Emily White’s observation in her book, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude*** that prolonged loneliness seems to feed on itself, perversely making it more difficult to break out and connect with others at a level of intimacy that fills us up and pushes back the boundaries of isolation.

Why should this be? Why should loneliness have such a profound impact on us, even when everything else in our lives seems to be going well?

The answer I believe, rests in our distant evolutionary past, when as a race, we were too puny and too slow to outrun the predators. Our pregnancies left us too vulnerable, compared to four legged animals, and our children need to survive more than a decade before they, themselves, could reproduce.  Had we not banded together into small tribes, we would never have survived as a species. And those who were able to bond the most securely–a definite evolutionary advantage–would have been the ones who survived to become our ancestors.

The downside of all of this is that, if we came into conflict with the members of our particular tribe, we could be rejected and exiled into the wild–an almost certain death sentence.  As a consequence, we come into this world terrified of rejection and abandonment.  Anything that threatens the bond to our loved ones fills us with a dread so intense we feel as if we are dying.

Loneliness of the type that many of us experience today, where we have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of casual work or online acquaintances, can still leave us feeling a deep longing and a need for more intimate connection.  And when this need is persistently unmet, our brains begin to change in response.  We already feel rejected at some level, and this fills us with a deep sense of shame.  And shame, according to Judith Herman, the renowned researcher into trauma, is synonymous with disconnection from others–a fear of unworthiness that makes it impossibly difficult to have the enough confidence to risk even more rejection****.  We fear it so much we start to see it in the faces around us.

So what can be done about this epidemic of loneliness?  So much of our isolation occurs at a structural level. We are required to leave our homes and communities to work  within a political-economy that can charitably be described as anti-social–one which blames the individual for the societal structures that create and enforce our disconnection from others.  In such an environment, it is an act of resistance to reach out to others and fight back against our encroaching isolation.

We must not allow the circumstances of our culture to paralyze us into silence.  As with all things shameful, the solution is not to conceal, but instead, to expose our pain to the light of compassion and understanding.  We need to seek out others with whom we can share our feelings loneliness and isolation–those who will not judge us or try to “fix” the problem, but are willing to share their own struggles with this quintessential feature of the modern era.

This very act of sharing–this deeply courageous, radical act of intimacy, is in itself the antidote to desolation.

*TheMental Health and Retirement Study  The Institute for Social Research  Email: hrsquestions@umich.edu

**https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/04/how-loneliness-begets-loneliness/521841/?utm_source=atltw

***Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude  Emily White, 2011

****https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/201307/how-compassion-can-heal-shame-childhood

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