‘It never occurred to me that I’d be lonely’

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JAYE Kearney was 29 when she left her home in London to start a new job in Leeds.

She went from living with her best friends, at a job where a social life came alongside with it, to starting afresh in a new city where she knew no one - and for the first time in her life, she experienced profound loneliness.

Jaye, now 38, of Headingley, said: “I’d never lived on my own, and thought it would be quite exciting, but it never occurred to me that I would be lonely.

“When I worked in London, I was always busy, there were always people to talk to. There was a lifestyle and community built into it.

“But my new job in theatre marketing in Leeds had a very small team, and was a lot more 9 to 5, with less evening work. Everyone I was working with had kids and partners to go home to.

“While everyone was lovely, I went from having my best friends around me and a job with an in-built social scene to something massively different.

“My flat became my haven, my cave. It wasn’t very healthy and it was hard. It never occurred to me that I would not make new friends and I didn’t have the mechanism to start.”

Jaye “muddled along” for three years without putting down solid roots in her new home. But she gradually made more connections, who became friends, and although she says she is still a “solitary person”, she now looks at loneliness differently.

“It took a change of mindset to make that gradual change,” she said. “Now I value the time I spend alone. I have some very good friends here in Leeds. Loneliness is a less constant state.”

Jaye’s experience is by no means unique. Earlier this year, a report by York-based insurer Aviva claimed that young people are suffering significantly more from loneliness than any other generation.

Researchers spoke to 2,000 adults and found nearly half of 18-24-year-olds said they often felt lonely, compared to a quarter of those aged over 65, despite many younger people being connected by social networks. The survey also found a third of younger people would be too embarrassed to tell someone if they had mental health problems.

A separate study by the Depression Alliance, out in April, found that a third of people struggle to cope at work because of depression, stress or burn-out, and some 83 per cent of those affected experienced loneliness or isolation as a result.

A survey from the Mental Health Foundation showed that loneliness was more prevalent among the young than those past retirement age, with nearly 60 per cent of those aged between 18 and 34 speaking of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared with 35 per cent of those aged over 55

And it seems British people are among the loneliest in Europe, less likely to know their neighbours or have strong friendships that our continental counterparts, according to research compiled by the Office for National Statistics in June.

Just 58 per cent of Britons say they feel connected to people in their area - something mirrored by findings of a Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) project which looked at neighbourhood approaches to tackling loneliness.

JRF worked in four Yorkshire neighbourhoods over three years, in Bradford and York, to explore what causes loneliness and how the community can come together to solve it. Unlike many projects working to tackle to loneliness, it didn’t focus on one age group or sector of the population, instead involving as many people as it could.

JRF’s community researchers spoke to 2,000 people, a quarter of whom were aged between 16 and 24.

Out of this age group, almost one in ten said they were lonely, and a fifth of these said lack of social acceptance, friends and ‘not fitting in’ was a cause of their loneliness.

The response from the young people showed the wide-ranging scale of how loneliness can affect people. Self-harm, depression, turning to drink or drugs were all mentioned. One person told the team they had lived in the community for seven years yet “people don’t realise I’m local.”

Tracey Robbins, JRF’s programme manager for Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness, said young people are often overlooked by academics studying loneliness.

She said: “The reason people tend to focus on older people when they talk about loneliness is that they are actually talking about social isolation, which is easier to measure.

“It’s also seen as more worthy. Young people don’t have the same pull on the heart strings as elderly people.

“But it’s a huge mental health problem, regardless of age. Loneliness means you’re less likely to exercise, more likely to drink and overeat, suffer from anxiety, stress and sleep less.”

She said the number of changes a person goes through from their late teens to early 30s exasperate the problem.

She said: “There’s so many transitions, and so much disconnection, it’s not surprising people feel lonely.

“We spoke to a lot of university students, and so many give up their courses because they can’t cope with being around so many people but feeling so disconnected from them. It take time to build up relationships but the difficulty of our generation is that we’re not patient.”

JRF’s research found that the fourth biggest cause of loneliness was the lack of opportunities young people had to engage with each other.

“We had one young man in York, in his mid-20s who wanted a sort of youth club for people from 15-35. He was recovering from a drug addiction, so couldn’t go to the pub to meet people and had nowhere to go, “ said Tracey. “We revel in social media, which is great, but young people don’t have the opportunities to meet each other without the peer pressure to conform.”

Social media was a double-edged sword for Jaye. She said: “If you’re feeling down it’s hard to see all the exciting things people are doing.

“But when I made that conscious effort, to helped me plan things to do, like writing that I wanted to go to the cinema, and did anyone want to come.”

Like Jaye, Tracey herself experienced loneliness after she moved from Leeds to Bradford eight years ago. “It was only when I look back that I realised I was really lonely,” she said.

But what can you do if you find yourself feeling lonely after moving somewhere new?

Tracey suggested getting a pet or joining a gym, but the most important, she said, was to be aware of it.

“Put a card through your neighbours door saying you’ve just moved in. Invite your new workmates for a drink, “ she said. “But also stay in touch with your old friends during the transition.

“It’s about proactively going out to try and make new friends and networks.”

WHILE young people may have hundreds of connections on social media, it’s the lack of depth to friendships that are making people lonely.

Mental health charity Mind said young people crave meaningful and supportive relationships.

Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, said loneliness can have a “significant impact” on mental health.

She said: “Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Some people choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people. Others may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family and still feel lonely. Loneliness can have a significant impact on mental health and can contribute to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. In previous research Mind found that young people with mental health problems were at a high risk of feeling alone, with 92 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds saying they felt socially isolated.

“For many people, overcoming loneliness is about increasing the level of social contact that they have with other people.”

If you are concerned that your feelings of loneliness, contact your GP or Mind’s online community Elefriends.co.uk

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