The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) this year is loneliness, with a focus on raising awareness of the impact it can have on our mental health. So many of us experienced loneliness in some form during the pandemic, and unfortunately many continue to feel this way. Loneliness may occur in the gap between our experienced social interactions and those we hope for or need.
The Mental Health Foundation has organised MHAW since 2000, and I read with interest their coverage of this week. They mention the current “epidemic of loneliness” and the part the pandemic played in disrupting and breaking the connections between people. They wrote about wanting “to give loneliness the attention that it deserves, bringing it out from the shadows where it is so often hidden.” They encourage us all to do something this week to tackle loneliness, even if it is “to get in touch with a friend or neighbour you haven’t spoken with in a while.”
These simple but powerful words made me think of other (perhaps not so) simple but powerful words while I was working with a neighbour in our communal garden – Mending Wall, the poem by Robert Frost.
The poem, as many a school pupil or university scholar will tell you to different degrees, asks why we would create a wall when we do not need one. It explores both the bond and the distance between people. The wish of the Mental Health Foundation to bring loneliness out from the shadows made me think of the neighbour in the poem who seems to be working in the shade created by the trees. Boundaries and words, or the lack of them, can contribute to people being distanced or remaining in the shadows. While we often may have little influence over the events that contribute to loneliness, it is helpful to consider what we can control.
There seem to be so many things that need mending as a result of the pandemic. A good and proper place to start is with the individual – and in particular, those who are alone or feel alone. And that includes looking after ourselves too. Healthcare professionals are often reminded that they must ensure that they are safe and well before they can provide care to others.
Communication is so powerful. Even a word can make someone smile. “Hello.” This week I will accept the challenge of contacting someone I haven’t been in touch with for a while.
I was thinking about how pulling out weeds with my neighbour, who lives alone, created a bond between us. It began with a simple "hello".
And how has this helped my mental health? It gave me a purpose when I could have chosen not to do anything. It forced me outside, where I heard the birds singing and felt the sun on my skin. It makes me smile each day as I see the garden coming to life.
This is the week to plant a new seed. Or to mend something. Or to do something differently. To say “hello” to someone. Perhaps even to write a poem.
Dr Greg Dollman is a senior medicolegal adviser and Mental Health First Aider at MDDUS. Having joined MDDUS in 2014, he completed a Masters in Medical Ethics and Law in 2015.
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