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'Lonely' seems to be the hardest word


With more and more of us living in single person households, Hazel explores the impact this is having on mental health.

Through a combination of longer life expectancy, higher rates of marriage separation and many other life events, such as leaving home, single person households are becoming more common. There are approximately 7.6 million people living alone in Britain today and that number is steadily increasing.

We and the people around us are finding ourselves increasingly alone and at risk of loneliness.

This ‘silent epidemic’ was the subject of a recent BBC programme, The Age of Loneliness, which followed people from all walks of life who all identified as feeling lonely.

As student nurses, loneliness – and its impact on health – is something we will all encounter and an important consideration both in the care of others and looking after ourselves.

The mental health charity Mind links loneliness to depression and anxiety. In extreme cases, it reports loneliness can be even the trigger for rarer conditions such as schizophrenia.

”For those with existing conditions, loneliness is even more commonplace”

Without help, loneliness can become so overwhelming that people consider suicide. For those with existing conditions, loneliness is even more commonplace as they battle stigma and discrimination, heightening their risk of social isolation.

One of the people the programme followed was Iain. For 10 years, his depression and anxiety have caused him to withdraw; no longer able to work and subsisting on a mere £8 in benefits per day. As his mental health has worsened, Iain has spent periods as long as two weeks in the same room: increasing his loneliness and causing him to feel even less able to face the world outside.

”Iain has spent periods as long as two weeks in the same room”

Iain’s story echoes many more that I met when out in practice and his feeling that his flat is both his sanctuary and his prison is also familiar.

The reality of being a student nurse is that we are on the frontline of care. Our empathy is both a great advantage and huge burden, making our role emotionally exhausting.

In my local trust, our standard shifts run from 7am until 8pm with a 45 minute break. At the end of each day, whether good or bad, I return to my flat and unpack my thoughts.

As a student nurse, I find that being around people who don’t have an understanding of what I do can sometimes be incredibly frustrating. On the toher hand, spending time only with other student nurses can sometimes feel like a game of ’Clinical Nightmare Top Trumps’. It’s a minefield!

”Our empathy is both a great advantage and huge burden, making our role emotionally exhausting”

I’ve always enjoyed my own company and solitude - specifically making time to be alone - has always been a part of my life. These moments are my time to reflect, process my thoughts and release any negative or destructive emotions.

Progressively though, I have noticed that during my degree I have spent more and more time alone. Recently I have begun to question if I am lonely. I have spoken to many of my colleagues and it is clear that I am not the only one.

Entering a career like nursing where so much of our professional persona is our genuine personality - where we become so emotionally invested in each therapeutic relationship – allowing ourselves some downtime away from other people is very beneficial.

”It is important to recognise when being alone becomes being lonely”

However, it is important to recognise when being alone becomes being lonely. Loneliness is not an easy subject to talk about. To say that you feel lonely still carries a great deal of stigma. Recognising loneliness early in our service users and in ourselves can avert growing psychological distress and potential real physical harm.

If you are worried, please reach out to someone.

This could be through university; online communities such as Student NT, your GP, or dedicated charities like the Samaritans, Sane or Mind.

However lonely you feel, remember you are not alone.


Readers' comments (3)

  • A really lovely article to make us think. I have experienced loneliness whilst on placement over the summer as no one was living with me. It is definitely something still stigmatised.

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  • even if you invite some one for a coffee they don't want to engage ,it is a common theme in some cultures. But they are the first to ask,where is she if they don't see you for a while. Engage ,chat,hug,share a tea or coffee please....lets get the feel good factor back. Create time ....we wall know you don't have time rushing about but do you know what,you only live once,so don't create that if only I...,what if I had.....i should have.....just do it.......

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  • A lovely article. I do not think winter with longer dark evenings helps. Sometimes going out with a friend for a coffee in a busy venue can help. Or if no friends are available I go out and treat myself to a nice coffee and surround myself with other people.

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