Earlier this year, the UK appointed its first Minister of Loneliness—a response to the 2017 commission that found ‘worryingly high’ levels of loneliness among Britons. While considered a public relations move by some, others saw the appointment as an opportunity to address the ‘loneliness epidemic’ many industrialized countries have (Mead, 2018; Givetash, 2018).
In Canada, up to 30 per cent of residents report feelings of loneliness, with higher rates among seniors, teens, and marginalized groups (Desjardins, 2018; Givetash, 2018). In Vancouver alone, a 2012 survey found that 25 per cent of the population was alone more often than it would like (Young, 2017). Loneliness poses new challenges for professional counsellors and therapists, who are now called upon to mitigate the isolating aspects of modern life.
Here is a closer look at how professional therapists help clients overcome feelings of loneliness.
The Health Risks of Loneliness
Discourse around a ‘loneliness epidemic’ has highlighted the adverse health effects of loneliness—a condition associated with everything from cardiovascular to cognitive problems. Now considered a major health risk, loneliness is thought to compound medical factors like obesity. According to findings by Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a researcher at Bingham Young University, social isolation is as important a mortality factor as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Young, 2017). For these reasons, Dr. Robin Lennox of McMaster University notes that Canadians should be more aware of loneliness and the long-term health risks it poses (Desjardins, 2018).
Overcoming Loneliness Means Embracing Community
The 2016 census showed that 28.2 per cent of Canadians lived alone—the highest amount in Canadian history (Young, 2017). The unique pressures and comforts of modern life have reduced interpersonal interaction, leading to widespread feelings of isolation. In the past few years, findings on social isolation have municipal authorities implementing new community-building efforts. For instance, Vancouver City Hall launched a ‘block party’ initiative in 2014 to foster a greater sense of community (National Post, 2014).
Among the top remedies for the ‘loneliness epidemic’, community-building reinvigorates personal contact and reduces feelings of isolation (Seepersad, 2014). For clients, overcoming loneliness can simply mean having the resources to make contact with others. Encouraging clients to connect with others through community initiatives, therapists can also play an important role in advocating for further community-building. Professional counsellors can also encourage clients to think critically about their personal community, developing nurturing relationships to mitigate loneliness (Desjardins, 2018).
Social Strategies Are an Important Tool for a Therapist Career
For some clients, feelings of loneliness persist even within well-defined communities (King’s College, 2018). While no two cases of loneliness are identical, limited social confidence is a leading cause. Professionals with counsellor therapist training can help clients identify and overcome the sources of social apprehension, building the confidence required to engage meaningfully in social situations. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is especially helpful in identifying the negative thought patterns and false assumptions underlying social anxiety. A 2010 study by Masi et al. found that cognitive behavioural therapy was a most effective treatment for loneliness in cases of maladaptive social cognition (Seepersad, 2014). Throughout their therapist career, some professionals also use group sessions to help build social abilities among isolated clients, encouraging them to introduce themselves, socialize, and receive compliments (Halvorson, 2010).
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Desjardins, L. (2018). Loneliness is a ‘significant issue’ in Canada, says doctor. Radio Canada International. Retrieved from: http://www.rcinet.ca/en/2018/01/19/health-risk-alone-lonely-canadians/
Givetash, L. (2018). U.K. loneliness minister appointment highlights need for Canadian action: experts. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/uk-loneliness-minister-appointment-highlights-need-for-canadian-action-experts/article37654170/
Halvorson, H. G. (2010). The Cure for Loneliness: Want to stop being lonely? What works, and what doesn’t. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-success/201010/the-cure-loneliness
King’s College London (2018). Depressed, inactive and out of work – study reveals lives of lonely young adults. Retrieved from: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-04-depressed-inactive-workstudy-reveals-lonely.html?utm_source=tabs&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=story-tabs
Mead, R. (2018). What Britain’s “Minister of Loneliness” says about Brexit and the legacy of Jo Cox. New Yorker. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/britain-minister-of-loneliness-brexit-jo-cox
National Post (2014). Lonely Vancouver: City Hall sees block parties as cure for alleged urban isolation plaguing its ‘detached’ citizens. Retrieved from: http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/lonely-vancouver-city-hall-sees-block-parties-as-cure-for-alleged-urban-isolation-plaguing-its-detached-citizens
Hedegaard, H., Warner, M., Miniño, A. M. (2017). Drug Overdose in the United States, 1999-2016. NCHS Data Brief No. 294. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db294.pdf
Seepersad, S. (2014). Treating Loneliness: It’s More Than Just Meeting Others. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/web-loneliness/201404/treating-loneliness-its-more-just-meeting-others
Young, L. (2017). Loneliness even unhealthier than obesity, should be a public health priority: psychologist. Global News. Retrieved from: https://globalnews.ca/news/3678277/loneliness-even-unhealthier-than-obesity-should-be-a-public-health-priority-researcher/