Mental health, loneliness and disability

11 July 2017

Everyone feels lonely at some point in their lives. The novelist Thomas Wolfe called loneliness the "central and inevitable experience of every man".

For some people though, loneliness is not just a passing phase but a chronic, long-term state which debilitates every part of their lives. This can be the case for many disabled people. Research from Scope shows that two-thirds of the British public admit that they feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people.

We are very proud to be working together with Sense and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, to highlight the causes and effects of loneliness and social isolation among disabled people.

For many years, the Mental Health Foundation has built evidence showing the link between loneliness and mental health problems. Our breakthrough Lonely Society report showed how increasing levels of loneliness over the past 50 years have been strongly linked to increased levels of mental health problems. Of those surveyed for this study, 42% said they have had felt depressed because they felt alone, and one in three said they would be embarrassed to admit being lonely.

My colleague Mark Rowland has highlighted powerfully the shame that people can feel about being lonely. He described the case of Christine, aged 72, who admitted she had offered her body for medical research to avoid having a funeral that nobody came to.

Loneliness is not just a cause of mental health problems, but can compound them and lead people to isolate themselves further still. In our survey, 57% of those who had experienced depression or anxiety said they had isolated themselves from friends and family.

Those with substantial, long-term mental health problems are, of course, important members of the disabled community. The stigma around mental health issues can be particularly isolating for these people with disabilities, and for others who experience shorter-term mental health issues.

Mental health stigma can make people feel that they have little to offer other people, eroding their self-esteem and making it more difficult for them to build relationships. People with learning disabilities can also be especially vulnerable. Our Building Friendships and Community Connections Network has been supporting individuals to develop and share strategies for combatting loneliness.

With research from the Office of National Statistics showing that the UK is now one of the loneliest places to live in Europe, the need to take action to tackle loneliness has never been greater.

It’s an issue that many people find difficult to talk about. But, ironically, allowing others to see our vulnerability can be the root to finding deeper connections with others. That’s why shining a light on disability and loneliness through the Jo Cox Commission’s work is so important.