Loneliness is a key driver of poor mental health and affects millions of people in the UK every year and, according to The Mental Health Foundation’s Pandemic research, this has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
In this Mental Health Awareness Week Campfire Chat special, we came together to discuss why meaningful connection and having a sense of belonging matters, and how we as individuals and as a community can tackle loneliness in a hyperconnected world.
Key topics covered included:
What does loneliness mean to you?
Loneliness is personal can mean lots of different things to different people. It is important to remember that being alone is different from feeling lonely. You can feel content when you’re on your own, and lonely when you’re surrounded by people. Loneliness doesn’t equate to being alone.
Mental health charity, Mind, describes it as ‘the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met.’
Loneliness may feel like you don’t belong, or that you can’t have your say because those around you might not understand.
Why is it important to talk about it?
Lots of people never think about the fact that you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. It’s not just about physical separation. Farm vets, for example, might not see much of their team, but can still feel connected when they’re alone. Loneliness is important to talk about as it can be hard to recognise
It can be difficult to reach out to someone and admit your feeling lonely for a number of reasons. Some may feel like they don’t want to burden others with their problems, when in fact, other people may be feeling exactly the same way. Everyone needs someone they can talk to. That’s why we need to break down the stigma. We need to look out for each other and be aware of when something doesn’t seem quite right.
When it comes to rural work, it can be difficult to make those initial meaningful connections when you’re spending lots of time alone working with multiple clients. However, once you get to know those clients and start building up relationships with them, things start to become a little easier. Sometimes just asking for a coffee and a chat is all it takes.
In our modern hyperconnected world, we have started communicating a lot more, but is this hindering the formation of meaningful connections?
With today’s technology, we are constantly contactable, but it has become less common to pick up the phone to talk to someone. So much is lost in instant messaging – tone, inference, and spontaneity. This can make it easier to lose touch with reality.
Why is community important?
Community gives people a sense of belonging and is hugely supportive in times of need. It can come in many forms. For example, it could be something wide scale, such as the veterinary practices in the Scottish highland and islands who now work together and can call on each other in times of need. Or it could be something much less involved but still meaningful, such as bumping into clients in the local supermarket who you have supported in the past.
It can be easy to think of community simply in veterinary terms. However, ultimately, veterinary, or non-veterinary, we are all people. This is why talking and sharing experiences is so important. It makes us realise we’re not alone. Being seen and heard matters.
What role does social media have to play?
Social media can be a great way of keeping in touch with friends and family – especially if you are far from home. However, if you don’t know the person you are following outside of social media, you are only seeing a filtered version of their life and it is hard to get an accurate view of what they’re experiencing. As Lucy, the Travelling RVN mentioned, you can post a magical looking photo, but nobody sees the hours of stress which have come before that single moment, so others can’t understand your struggles.
In veterinary terms, it can be a fantastic for people from across the professions who are looking to gain an insight into the different roles within the veterinary world. Pre-social media, this would have been much more difficult. Gaining that insight gives us a greater sense of understanding, which gives us the opportunity to become more connected as a profession.
However, social media is constant, and it can make it difficult to maintain boundaries and switch off.
In person sharing at conferences and networking events is still hugely important, as it allows us to get to know the person behind the screen. It also prevents those who aren’t on social media from being excluded from the conversation.
Do you think the pressure of being a leader can lead to professional isolation?
Leaders and managers have come into the conversation much more since the pandemic hit. Pre-pandemic, as a leader you knew your role and what you and your team needed to achieve. Since the pandemic, people are talking much more about mental health and part of leadership has become supporting the mental health of their teams, but quite often, leaders do not have any prior training to deal with this. By breaking down the stigma at the top and encouraging leaders to be open about their mental health and how to be supportive of others, this then filters down into the rest of the team.
From a diversity and widening participation perspective, how can we create a sense of belonging through inclusion?
There is a big difference between widening participation and inclusion. You can have a diverse workforce, but everyone needs to feel included and like they belong. Even if you have supportive colleagues, it can be difficult if they aren’t subject to the same challenges you are facing. Social media can be a great way of connecting with people who understand and have found themselves in similar circumstances. Seeing people who are like you and being able to talk to those people about your experiences is hugely important.
Organisations such as British Veterinary Ethnicity Diversity Society (BVEDS), Animals Aspirations, British Veterinary Chronic Illness Support (BVCIS) and British Veterinary LGBT+ are all doing fantastic work in this area.
Panellist top tips:
- Ask someone if they want to go for a coffee. Whether you’re doing it for them, or for you. Connection works both ways so don’t be afraid to reach out.
- Talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling. Not only will this help you, but it may well help them. They might be feeling the same way and will give them the courage to reach out to others.
- Connection is hugely important, but make sure you take time for yourself to decompress and be there for yourself as well as being there for others.