I’d often felt intensely lonely growing up, but it wasn’t until I began my A-levels that I was able to truly isolate myself. I’d left the secondary school where all the teachers knew my name and my parents, and begun attending an FE college where the teachers were on first name terms with students, but didn’t seem to care much whether they attended lessons. This shift in structure and routine was too much of a temptation for a socially anxious 16 year old, who wanted nothing from life but to sleep until the lunch time episode of Neighbours.
My anxiety manifested itself in many forms, mainly a stammer, violent nightmares, and social avoidance. Something happened to my sense of identity and self-esteem when leaving school that exacerbated these problems. Simple things like asking a bus driver for “a return to Nottingham”, or sharing a seat on the journey home with a friend of my Mother, filled me with panic. My disturbed sleep meant that I woke every morning with the same emotions; frustration and dread. After many a sleepless night, I’d often get a lift to college with my Dad on his way to work. I’d wish him good day as he dropped me off at the entrance, and dutifully wave as his car vanished over the brow of the hill. I’d then cross the road and catch a bus back home again – a journey that took over an hour. Such was my fear of being asked to read a passage from a book, deliver a presentation, or just respond to a question in front of other people. I’d be back in bed by 10:30, sleep until late afternoon, then get dressed and empty the dishwasher, ready for my parents return from work. Come night time I’d lay awake again, full of self-criticism and guilt, hopelessly reflecting on the many ways in which I was wasting my life.
I tried to escape my anxieties by spending a gap year in Australia – but sadly they sneaked on the flight with me and harassed me the whole trip. The shame that followed the nightmares was that much worse since I regularly shared a room with at least 3 other people in bunk beds. I’d planned to re-invent myself as a confident, tanned beach-dude, but spent the majority of my time asleep or inside. The confidence gained from travelling at 18, and spending most of my time with older people, meant that by the time I started University I felt a little more worldly-wise and self-assured. The same problems persisted with regards to speaking in classes though, so I didn’t attend much. I stayed up most of the night and slept most of the day. My anxiety problems continued well in to my mid-twenties, finding new forms and new frustrations.
From the age of 16 – 24 I was provided the safety net of ‘studying’ and ‘travelling’ that meant I was able to exist in a highly non-functioning state, and for that not impact too greatly on my quality life. I was also blessed with a strong support network and a few character traits that meant I never went under. It was mainly due to the realisation of this, and my own experiences, that I ended up working for the mental health charity Mind.
A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe. Loneliness is linked to increased stress, anxiety, depression and addiction. Research suggests isolation is more harmful than not exercising, more harmful than smoking and alcoholism, and twice as harmful as obesity. Isolated people are likely to earn less, have poorer physical health and experience stigma. Many people that I work with state that the stigma of their mental health diagnosis is worse than the condition itself. Their symptoms can be self-managed, treated and medicated, but it’s often other peoples’ negative perceptions that cause them to isolate themselves and disengage with life. It’s largely the stigma around mental health that stops men talking about their problems, and this is sadly reflected in the fact that 3 in 4 of all suicides in the UK are carried out by men.
I’ve reduced my anxiety over the past few years by trying to follow the ‘5 ways to well-being’: connecting with others, being active, being present in the moment, learning something new and giving to others. I try to remind myself that we all have things about ourselves that we don’t like. We can continue to allow these things to inhibit us, we can learn to accept them, or we can change them. I’ve found focusing on my good qualities, thinking positively, and setting goals, can all help to with confidence and self-esteem. I’ve also tried to face my fears where possible and now one of my roles within Mind is delivering training – something I’d never believed possible just a few years ago.My main role within Mind is managing the Beating Isolation service in the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. The aim of the service is to support isolated individuals to create links in their community, by accessing social, vocational and educational activities. The main way in which we facilitate this is by recruiting and training volunteers to become befrienders and matching them with one of our service users.
There’s a mountain of research confirming the positive benefits of volunteering – especially when it involves working directly to improve the lives of others. Giving our time to others has a huge benefit on our own mental health and overall well-being. I’ve been working on this service now for over 4 years, and the problem we’ve always had is recruiting male volunteers. It’s therefore very hard for us to meet the high demand coming from the many isolated males referred to our service. If you could spare 1-2 hours a week to volunteer with us, or you’d like to access the service yourself, then please drop us an email at [email protected].
Photo credit: D.Munos-Santos CC licence
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