A commission started by murdered MP Jo Cox is investigating loneliness in the UK, which it says is an epidemic affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. Here, two young women share their stories.
In 2010 Molly Forbes had her first child, Freya. But after the birth she was confronted with something she had not prepared for: loneliness.
A “sociable person”, Molly – then 26 – was one of the first of her friends to have a baby. Her husband was out at work all day and she did not have any close family living by.
“The loneliness of being a new mother was a real surprise for me. It just hit me,” she said.
“You’re suddenly at home with a baby. You feel safer there so you stay home – but it makes you more isolated.
“When you go out, you want to be seen to be doing a good job and being happy. If you admit you’re lonely, you might be labelled as not coping.”
The commission – planned by West Yorkshire Labour MP Jo Cox before she was murdered last June – says a fifth of the population privately admit they are “always or often lonely”.
But two-thirds of those would never confess to having a problem in public, it says
Molly, from Devon, said that rather than being honest about how she was feeling, she had “put a brave face on – and that can make you more lonely”.
“Looking back, I was definitely feeling quite anxious.
“I was worrying about money, about whether I’d go back to my job – and when you don’t have someone to talk to, these worries can spiral out of control.”
Molly had lots of friends, but found she couldn’t talk to them about her post-baby concerns. That was when she started writing a blog.
“I made connections with other mums online, and from there I started meeting up with people and found friends that way.”
The commission says three-quarters of people who are lonely on a regular basis do not know where to turn for support. It is looking for practical solutions to beat loneliness.
Molly’s advice for new mums?
“Spend time making friends with other pregnant women, so you have a support network ready to go once the baby is born.”
Who is feeling lonely?
- Parents – Action for Children found 24% of parents surveyed were always or often lonely
- Teenagers – 62% are ‘sometimes lonely’ and one in 20 never spend time with friends at weekends
- Carers – 8 out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one
- Refugees and migrants – 58% of those surveyed in London cited loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge
- The elderly – 1 in 3 people aged 75 and over say that feelings of loneliness are out of their control
- The deafblind charity Sense has said that up to half of disabled people will be lonely on any given day
‘Bottling’ it up
For Michelle Ornstein, who has a learning disability, there is nothing worse than being alone.
“When I’m here on my own, I feel really down and anxious,” she said.
The 22-year-old, from Essex, said her anxieties had got worse in recent years, leading her to leave college.
There had been an incident on the school bus, where Michelle was wearing her hearing aids close to a group of people being loud.
“I just burst out in tears on the bus. I got myself so worked up and thought this is it. I can’t do this,” Michelle said.
“At one point I couldn’t be left on my own at all, I wouldn’t let [my parents] out the door.”
Spending time out of the house and with friends can be key to countering loneliness but, Rossanna Trudgian, Head of Campaigns at Mencap explained, almost a third of youngsters with learning disabilities spend less than an hour outside their homes on a Saturday.
“Social isolation and fear of negative attitudes can remain huge barriers towards feeling welcome and included in society,” she said.
But things have got better for Michelle. Talking things through with her family has helped – and this week, she starts a new course.
Michelle’s advice is “talk”.
She said: “If you keep it to yourself, you will bottle it up and build up more anxieties and won’t go out.”
‘Few admit it’
Michelle is by no means the only young person experiencing loneliness.
The Mix is an online support service for under-25s. This year, it has seen a 26% rise in the numbers of those accessing their loneliness support service, compared to the previous year.
Community manager James Pickstone said loneliness was “an underlying issue” shared by many people who visit the service, even though it was “rarely discussed openly”.
He said: “We see a lot of young people feeling isolated at college and university, living away from home and not having the social life expected and associated with the university experience.”
And younger people can experience loneliness differently from how older adults do.
Prof Graham Davey from the University of Sussex explained: “Younger people appear to be focused on friendship networks – the number of relationships they have – and experience loneliness as a function of the fewer friends they have.”
And in today’s society, friendship networks are represented nowhere more obviously than on social media.
“Whether you perceive yourself to be a successful user of social media is likely to have an impact on feelings of loneliness, anxiety, paranoia and mental health generally,” the psychology professor said.
But you won’t find too many status updates about feeling lonely because ultimately – Prof Davey argued – loneliness has a stigma and “few people want to admit they’re lonely”.