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Are you lonesome tonight … or today?

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

IT is a silent epidemic. Experts say it can ultimately kill you. You could call it a disease of the heart but it isn’t really cardiovascular, is it?   
Who wants to say they are lonely? Who wants to admit that they walk down main street whilst carrying a lonely heart? It is Ireland’s last big taboo subject. We have dealt with gay rights. We have dealt with abortion, divorce, institutional abuse (of the church and state types). We have debated all aspects of sexuality, but what about the most fundamental of existential questions: the solitary soul?
Are we avoiding the subject because loneliness implies failure in a society that increasingly demands we live with superficial smiles on our faces every time we open our hall doors?  
Ours is a society that glibly asks, ‘How are you?’ but demands a positive response.
“I’m great. Life is wonderful.”
Well, we don’t have time to stand and listen anymore, do we? Our phones are pinging; our email inboxes are clogging up; our barbecues sizzling; our planes taxiing to runways; our pedicurists already armed; our personal trainers warming up; our glasses of wine chilling.

‘Unrecognised health crisis’
MAYO Senator and Belmullet GP Keith Swanick says loneliness is ‘the most unrecognised health crisis of this generation’. As chairperson of the Loneliness Taskforce, he should know. As a GP working in a remote part of rural Ireland he has undoubtedly first-hand experience of this chronic and debilitating human condition.
He says that prolonged bouts of loneliness can affect physical and mental health, and reduce life expectancy. Launched earlier this month, the Loneliness Taskforce’s report, ‘A Connected Island: An Ireland free from loneliness’, has urged the Government to fund a public  awareness campaign to tackle this nationwide problem.
Significantly, Dr Swanick said his patients would admit more easily that they were depressed than lonely. This certainly confirms Father Brian D’Arcy’s belief that loneliness is ‘the last taboo in Ireland’.       
It is important to realise that loneliness is not just an infliction of old age. Indeed, in an increasingly digitised world, loneliness knows no boundaries. Its demographic is all-encompassing.
Interestingly, Professor Brian Lawlor, a consultant psychiatrist at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, spoke of his earlier years working there when some patients who were prescribed anti-depressants showed no sign of improvement. He suggested that it may have been because no one asked the question: “Are you lonely?”
Research shows that loneliness can influence physical and mental health, including clinical depression, dementia and sleep problems; it can also adversely affect cardiovascular health.
Seán Moynihan, the Chief Executive of ALONE, the charity supporting older people, said at the launch of the report: “We need to make sure in Ireland that it is OK to say, ‘I am lonely’.”
With a fast-changing society and aging population ‘people feel less and less connected with their communities’.
“Previously, our social circles were made up of our families, our neighbours and our communities. Now, as our lifestyles change, we are required to put effort into these connections which were formerly an intrinsic part of everyday life,” he observed.

Connectedness crisis
ISN’T it bizarre that in a world where there never has been more so-called connectedness – mobile phones, tablets, computers, televisions – there is a need for a Minister for Loneliness. There’s already one in the United Kingdom, and, bet you, there will be one in the not-too-distant future here in Ireland.
Loneliness ‘never discriminates between young or old, between rich and poor and between urban and rural’.
Despite the arrival of the most ‘interconnected’ era ever with social media, people are lonelier than ever, Dr Swanick said.
“The importance of personal contact and human interaction with others cannot be superseded by technology alone.”
Senator Swanick’s report recommends that the Government spend €3 million initially to combat loneliness. It also suggests that the Government should promote a public awareness campaign and sustain funding for research and initiatives into the future, including supporting volunteer action plans.
As stated above, loneliness is not just an age issue. One university student interviewed for the report said: “I have a feeling of emptiness that is hard to describe. Kinda like you ran out of petrol in the car.”
In the word of Clinical Psychologist, Dr Eddie Murphy:
“Just like feelings of hunger or thirst make you eat and drink, the feeling of being lonely signals your need for human contact.”
Time to get in touch.

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