Loneliness packs a mean one-two punch.
Not only are lonely people forced to confront life’s challenges alone, which can be crushing enough, but they must also confront the reality of their isolating condition without any help — a vicious circle that can end in deep depression or worse.
Fortunately, a call center in England, known as the Silver Line, is helping the most at-risk group for loneliness — senior citizens — make confidential calls whenever they want, and talk to someone who will listen.
Sophie Andrews, chief executive of the Silver Line, tells the New York Times that more than a million people have called since the first center opened three years ago. The centres currently get a weekly average of about 10,000 calls. According to Silver Line’s website, roughly 3,000 people volunteer to make weekly follow-up calls to those seniors whose loneliness seems especially extreme.
Sometimes people ring the hotline just to discuss the weather or current events. Sometimes they recall life during World War II. Not all of them discuss their loneliness head-on, but many like to get feelings off their chest in some form or another.
Loneliness rates seem to be increasing worldwide, among both the young — who sometimes recede into their internal, Internet-based lives — and the old, who lose mobility and outlive their closest friends. Research suggests loneliness increases mortality risk by 26%, more so than obesity or smoking. Seniors have a higher risk of chronic loneliness, but people of all ages can suffer.
To help people regain some control over their social lives, Dr. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive & Social Neuroscience, outlines four strategies people can adopt, which he fits under the acronym EASE. They include: Extend yourself, Action plan, Selection, and Expect the best.
Silver Line’s mission naturally aligns with Cacioppo’s plan, because the goal of the program is to create as few barriers as possible between lonely people and responders willing to socialise with them. Per Cacioppo’s strategies, Silver Line callers can easily put themselves out there (Extend yourself), feel in control (Action plan), trust their feelings will be respected (Selection), and have high hopes (Expect the best).
However, Cacioppo tells the Times that he doesn’t think Silver Line alone can cure chronic loneliness. The service’s strongest asset is its ability to brighten people’s mood, but that may only be one component of the larger condition. Chronic loneliness affects hormones related to stress and white blood cell counts, possibly weakening immune health.
Hearteningly, the efforts in England are already spilling over into the US, where mental health still receives far less attention than physical health.
For example, the Friendship Line operates as a dual loneliness-suicide prevention hotline with help from the Institute of Ageing. And the CONTACT helpline promises to give people “emotional listening support.”
But even a cursory Google search for loneliness helplines exposes what America still doesn’t understand about mental health. Aside from a few select places that offer help with loneliness, many more deal exclusively with suicide — an indication the problem often goes untreated until it reaches its most severe stage.
As with television sitcoms, loneliness helplines are one approach America could stand to borrow from the Brits.