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Protect and Connect to Combat Loneliness

Organised by Mental Health UK, this annual initiative throws a much-needed spotlight on the challenges that many people face with mental health and wellbeing. Awareness events such as this are powerful weapons in the fight to destigmatise talking about mental health and asking for help when it is needed. This year, Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on loneliness as a driver for poor mental health and a leading risk factor for becoming isolated . This makes sense. The further we withdraw from those around us, the harder we find it to seek support and make meaningful connections. Around one in four people in the UK have been affected by a mental health problem. This can involve a range of scenarios, including relationships and family concerns, financial issues, workplace problems and worries around physical health or coping with day-to-day life. When we are feeling anxious or troubled by something, reaching out to a trusted network of people for help and support is invaluable. That is why loneliness poses such a risk, and why the team behind this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is concentrating on providing simple advice and help to reduce its impact. Additionally, there is much that can be done to help people build connections and protect mental health in all sorts of situations…

In the workplace

The pandemic brought about a seismic shift in attitudes towards working from home. Even now, several months on, many firms and organisations are finding that staff want to carry on working from home full time. A YouGov survey last year put the figure at one in five people expressing this preference. That is all very well for those seeking to cut down on commuting time and costs, or who enjoy the more relaxed environment of powering up the laptop on the dining room table with a cup of coffee beside them, but it can bring problems of a different kind for those living with poor mental health. Losing daily, face-to-face contact and interaction with colleagues can lead to loneliness and a loss of confidence at work. Having to connect to constant online meetings can be difficult to handle if there are anxieties over technology or physical issues around headaches or eyestrain from over-use of screens. Don’t suffer in silence if you are finding ‘virtual’ working arrangements like these hard to handle. Talk to your line manager, HR department or colleague to see what support is available. Set aside time for a friendly phone call or lunch with colleagues with whom you get on well. Watch your work-life balance and try not to work on after you are supposed to log off for the day. You need to have adequate downtime after a hard day’s work, wherever you are physically based or however short (or non-existent) your commute may be. It is up to management to ensure that everyone is as comfortable as possible wherever they are located, and that nobody is feeling cut off or isolated from the rest of their team. Managers who need additional help with achieving this, or who are worried about someone in their team should seek advice sooner, rather than later. Help is available in the form of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training that explores ways of supporting people’s wellbeing in the workplace. Find more here MHFA Training  

Out and about

For some people, connecting with friends, family and hobby groups outside of the home is not always as joyous as they would wish. Long-held resentments, misunderstandings or simply a mismatch in expectations around a conversation or event can lead to arguments and to people making less effort to meet up or chat over the phone. Again, the pandemic led to some families and friendship groups losing regular contact and made people feel anxious about returning to an active social life once the lockdowns were lifted. Even the prospect of going out for the day alone or with one other person can still be intimidating for people with health anxieties or a fear of re-entering life outside their own four walls. The relaxing of regulations around masks, hand sanitisers etc. has caused some confusion over how best to protect against viruses. In this situation, it is easy to see how physical health worries like these could develop into bigger challenges around mental health. Advice is readily available online, but some of the points that seem to be particularly pertinent include recognising that the events caused by the arrival of Covid-19 have been traumatising for many of us. Taking things slowly – at your pace and not anyone else’s – can help with re-acclimatisation, as can seeking therapy such as CBT. When you are faced with the prospect of going out and about or meeting up with people for the first time in a while, stop for a bit and identify how you are feeling and if it is ‘appropriate’ for the situation you are in. Some nerves are to be expected when going back to doing something that you have not done for ages. However, stronger feelings of panic or fear could be more concerning and require additional support to overcome. Relaxing activities such as yoga, massage, deep breathing or meditation can also help reduce anxiety and reinforce positive mental health.  

Going online

Zoom, Skype, Teams, Houseparty… the list of online apps designed to help people connect goes on and on. Being able to ‘meet’ virtually with people all over the world was a godsend for many of us during lockdown. For some, it helped keep social isolation at bay. We could see friends, family members, and business colleagues on our screens in real-time and talk to them live. We could catch up on people’s news, discuss business projects and even share food and drinks together – in separate homes, but with everyone’s faces appearing on the same screen. However, this was not a catch-all in terms of preventing loneliness, isolation and poor mental health. Some people struggled with the technology behind video calling such as connecting to Wi-Fi, operating the camera and avoiding the dreaded scenario of “being on mute” when trying to make conversation. Additional issues arose – and doubtless continue to do so – from people being left out of online meeting invitations by mistake or deliberately, or not having access to the right IT equipment or smart device to be able to join in. Simple help or training in how to use IT and connect to virtual meetings provided by workplaces, family members or community groups would certainly help people cope better with this new form of social interaction that shows no sign of going away again soon. Different online issues also affect mental health, even when live video meetings are not on the agenda. Social media brings its own plethora of issues and complications. Reading about other people’s seemingly perfect lives can bring about feelings of envy, inadequacy or so-called FOMO (fear of missing out). Putting too much information or emotional investment into your own social media posts can be harmful if you find yourself moving further and further towards online self-absorption and away from interacting with people in real life. Then, there is the risk of becoming upset by how others react and interact with what you post or share online. It is easy for those who enjoy writing provocative or unkind comments and replies to forget that there is a real live person on the other end of the screen. Deliberate trolling can cause a lot of distress too, as can attempts at online fraud, ‘catfishing’ (taking on a false identity online in order to trick someone else into thinking it is real) or identity theft. Top tips here include thinking carefully before writing or sharing anything online that could have negative repercussions for you later. Keep your personal and banking details secret and never share them unless you completely trust the website you are using. If something on the internet seems too good to be true, it usually is. Don’t spend too long on social media or browsing websites without taking a break. Never engage in discussions with people who are going to upset you with their comments or implications. If in doubt, turn off the computer or phone and go and do something else for a while. This Mental Health Awareness Week, remember that no-one should struggle alone with life’s challenges, especially when it comes to feeling lonely or isolated. It is important to raise awareness of the impact that loneliness can have on people’s mental health, and to find out more about ways to initiate conversations, bring people together and identify those around us who might be struggling with making meaningful connections. If you are concerned about your own mental health or risk of becoming isolated, or have anxieties around the scenarios discussed in this blog, there are some excellent resources online that could help you reach out for the support you need. Here are a few to get started.

Text SHOUT on 85258 free from all major mobile networks in the UK. Call the Samaritans on 116 123 or email  Hub of Hope for local services. You can pop your postcode in and find services to support you in your local area.

Post Author: Gayle Young