While the remainder of pandemic-era restrictions were lifted in England in February, almost two years of social distancing and isolation from friends and family has highlighted how loneliness affects people’s wellbeing.
By definition, loneliness is an emotion which occurs because of a “perceived sense of disconnection from others”.
In 2016 to 2017, one in 20 (5 per cent) adults said they felt lonely “often or always”, according to the Office for National Statistics. This figure rose to 7.2 per cent in February 2021 following the first 11 months of the pandemic.
In July 2021, a report by the Campaign to End Loneliness estimated that one million more people became chronically lonely during the pandemic.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, which is taking place from Monday 9 May to Sunday 15 May, charities are encouraging people to build “meaningful connections” with friends, family, colleagues and within their communities.
Here’s everything you need to know about the annual event.
Who created it?
Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK was conceived by the Mental Health Foundation, an organisation founded in 1949.
The charity states that it takes “a public mental health approach to prevention, finding solutions to individuals, those at risk and for society, in order to improve everyone’s mental wellbeing”.
The first Mental Health Awareness Week took place in 2001, and has since become one of the most significant mental health awareness observances in the world.
In the US, Mental Health Awareness Week is observed in October, coinciding with World Mental Health Day on 10 October.
What is this year’s theme?
This year, the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK is loneliness.
The Mental Health Foundation chose this theme to raise awareness of how long-lasting or severe loneliness can affect both physical and mental health. In turn, this has implications not just for individuals but also society at large.
People who are often or always lonely have a higher risk of developing certain mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, and this kind of loneliness is also associated with increased thoughts of suicide.
Loneliness can also have a detrimental impact on physical health as it negatively affects sleep quality and increases cortisol levels (our body’s main stress hormone).
“Evidence shows that loneliness leads to greater pressure on public services through, for instance, increased GP visits, longer hospital stays, increased likelihood of entering residential care and the costs of associated conditions such as depression and diabete,” the Mental Health Foundation said.
The charity is also aiming to highlight how the loneliness experienced during the pandemic “will continue to have implications for mental health, even now restrictions are eased”.
“The evidence suggests that the pandemic heightened disadvantages among those groups that were already at greater risk of loneliness anyway and increased the risk of loneliness among some new groups,” it said.
How can you get involved?
According to the Mental Health Foundation website, stories are the best way to get involved, with the organisation encouraging people to share their experiences of loneliness on social media through the hashtag #I’veBeenThere.
“Loneliness is affecting more and more of us in the UK and has had a huge impact on our physical and mental health during the pandemic,” Mark Rowland, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said.
“That is why we have chosen it as our theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022. Our connection to other people and our community is fundamental to protecting our mental health so we much find better ways of tackling the epidemic of loneliness. We can all play a part in this.”
The foundation has also created infographics to be shared on social media, which are available for free on its website here.
Separately, the campaign is calling on the government to provide additional funding to local councils so that they may create community resources to tackle loneliness.
If you are in need of mental health support, you can contact charity Mind by calling the helpline on 0300 123 3393, emailing email@example.com or texting 86463. The helpline is open Monday to Friday (except bank holidays), 9am to 6pm.