Chronic Illness, Disability and Loneliness (Part 1): Introduction
Loneliness is this year’s theme for mental health awareness week. Loneliness is a widespread problem, which doesn’t just affect the elderly. Those with chronic illness or disability experience more loneliness than the general population. Chronic illness, disability and loneliness is a big topic. So, here it’s broken in two blog posts.
Part one looks at:
- chronic illness, disability and mental health
- what is loneliness?
- my own experiences
Part two covers:
- types of loneliness
- health risks of loneliness
- how to access help
Chronic Illness, Disability and Mental Health
Disabled people experience more mental health difficulties than non-disabled people. Both anxiety and loneliness are more common for disabled people. Disabled people whose impairments affect them more severely have lower wellbeing ratings than disabled people whose impairments affect them less severely. Below is a table of average scores for both anxiety and loneliness among disabled and non-disabled people.
This table shows that 43% of disabled people experience anxiety, compared with 27% of non-disabled people. It also shows figures for ‘often or always lonely’ 13% for disabled versus 3% for non-disabled. These differences in experience are very large. Loneliness is more than 4 times more common amongst disabled people compared with non-disabled people. The data comes from the UK Office for National Statistics.
There are similar data disparities between disabled and non-disabled people for other well-being metrics, including for life feeling ‘happy’ ‘worthwhile’ and ‘satisfying.’ If you suffer from anxiety, you may find our post on 5 Top Tips for Anxiety, helpful.
What is Loneliness?
What exactly do we mean when we say ‘loneliness’? Loneliness is a feeling of lack of companionship or connectivity with others. It’s when we yearn for meaningful social interaction. In short, loneliness is having fewer social relationships than we would like, or relationships of a lower quality than we desire. Sometimes we can be surrounded by people but still experience a disconnect. So it’s possible to feel lonely in social settings.
Disabled people and those with complex chronic illness can often be isolated for health reasons. A prime example is shielding during the pandemic. Another is having less time for social interaction as time is taken up by treatments. Or, being housebound with limited ability to receive visitors. There are of course other reasons too. Those who experience loneliness and isolation can later find it harder to connect with others. Some then experience depression or social anxiety as a result. It becomes a vicious cycle.
My Experiences with Chronic Illness, Disability and Loneliness
I’ve lost most of my friends since becoming sick nearly 5 years ago. More recently, I spent two and a half years shielding due to covid and only go out now for medical treatment. In the last 6 months, I’ve had two (socially distanced) visits in my garden. I can only manage to spend around 60 minutes with a friend per visit (I experience so much fatigue, I need a day or two to recover). So despite having online friends (whom I value massively) I do sometimes feel lonely. It’s completely different to be in someone’s company IRL than to share an online space with them. I also can’t do groups, either online or in person. This stems from the additional energy needed to cope with the sensory overload of more than one person speaking at a time.
How to Loose Friends and Alienate People
Being chronically ill or disabled means I might need to cancel or reschedule last minute as symptoms can be unpredictable. A lot of people find that unpredictability inconvenient. Some have difficulty seeing me (their previously healthy and active friend) struggle with basics like walking, eating or memory. It’s something they don’t want to witness. Especially because my illness came on for no discernible reason/cause, meaning it could happen to anyone. No one wants a regular reminder of the fragility of their own existence. Finally, there are those who don’t find value in the friendship anymore. Perhaps they originally knew me professionally, or valued having a contact in London with a spare room. So, I’m no longer a useful person to know.
It’s very difficult to loose friends when you’re going through life-changing illness. It’s a time when you should be able to reach out for more support. Although, it can also be hard maintaining friendships when you’re often too sick to stay in regular contact. I acknowledge that there is difficulty navigating the situation on both sides; it’s not easy helplessly watching a friend suffer. But it’s so difficult not to take the losses personally. So hard to not let them affect self esteem during a time when your self esteem is already taking a battering (loss of ability, job, independence, identity etc). So the couple of friends I’ve managed to hang on to, I treasure them more than ever. And it’s made me reflect deeply on what it was about me, that made me seemingly so easy to abandon in the first place.
Do you have any experiences of loneliness? What caused the loneliness and were you able to address that? If you feel able to share, feel free to start or contribute to the conversation in the comments. Part 2 of Chronic illness, disability and loneliness will be up in a couple of weeks.