This month, it was reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that November has seen 4.2 million people always or often feeling lonely, which is 1.4 million more than before the Covid-19 pandemic first started.
The evidence is clear: loneliness is a killer, strongly associated with high levels of anxiety and linked directly to poor physical and mental health. If the government isn’t careful, Christmas (or a lack thereof) could be the catalyst for a mental health disaster.
Christmas Day is a time for families to come together, meaning the negative impact on mental health at this time of year could be felt even more obviously by some. It is the same for other religious festivals, including Eid and Diwali, and I wish families could have gathered together at that time, too.
I spoke to several people before Boris Johnson’s announcements were made yesterday (in which he noted that, while Christmas won’t be normal this year, he is hoping to enable people to see family and friends), and the idea of not being able to spend Christmas with family filled them with “fear” and existential dread, especially those living alone.
I’m not saying people should have huge Christmas parties, but given the statistics on loneliness and the rise in calls to mental health helplines this year, it’s clear that people – especially those living alone – are struggling without physical human contact.
I’m tired of reading tweet after tweet about how people who choose to mix on Christmas Day are selfish or irresponsible. What many don’t realise is that vulnerable people are reading these messages: people whose mental health is becoming harder to manage than ever due to the lack of human contact.
No, I don’t think people from several households should be meeting up. But seeing parents, children or other non-vulnerable family members, if done in a safe way – even if it has to be outside – with all precautions taken, could be vital to people who are struggling.
I was unfortunate enough to be hit with postnatal depression eight months ago after giving birth to my first child, and not being able to see my mum, who has always been my biggest support, was incredibly difficult and had an even worse impact on my mental health – especially at a time when you’re supposed to have more support than ever. And I know I’m not alone in this, with a rise in new mothers experiencing postnatal depression. The mental health of single parents and new parents has also deteriorated.
This year has been filled with so much devastation, and the significant loneliness is only adding to that. It’s time that those worried about mental wellbeing are allowed to make their own risk assessments. Some people have mentioned socially distanced family dinners. Others have said they will be wearing PPE.
Other precautions that could be taken if possible include isolating completely before meeting, ensuring you don’t have any symptoms and even getting a test, if possible. To take even safer precautions, isolating after the gathering would be a sensible idea.
If this is the case, seeing your immediate family – at a time of year where seasonal affective disorder is also prevalent – could be helpful, and could give people who are badly struggling with their mental health that break from loneliness, and a re-entry (even if only a brief one) into real-life and human connection.
You can contact the Samaritans helpline by calling 116 123. The helpline is free and open 24 hours a day every day of the year.
You can also contact Samaritans by emailing email@example.com. The average response time is 24 hours.