There are many things people fear in life: growing old, dying,
being disfigured, going mad, becoming blind, deaf or disabled. But,
as a mental health service user who has met many people who have
been through these mills and achieved lives of meaning, fulfilment
and often happiness, the thing I fear most is still
I know people who like to be on their own, who see solitude as an
occasional and sometimes frequent blessing. I know others who, even
with people around them, are still happiest in their own company.
But for me, being alone, which is my trigger for loneliness, is one
of the grimmest human states. I can enjoy short periods being alone
because it makes being with other people the more enjoyable and
intense. But loneliness, without people to talk to, without people
I can connect with, is a form of purgatory.
Of course, psychiatry can tell me about my “over-dependency” and
“dependent personality”. Sadly this doesn’t take me or anybody else
very far. It can also be difficult if you are a person who likes to
be with others who feel close, but who is not blessed with an
outgoing nature or fall short on social skills. That’s why I have
always enjoyed settings where you can have undemanding contact.
This is what the cafes offer. But they can only provide limited
Loneliness for me is like a void. What is there to life if things
cannot be shared? If there aren’t people who have shared
understandings and interests to be with, chat to, do things with? I
noticed a long time ago, people-watching in cafes, that laughing
and smiling are mainly activities that people do together. Frowns
and sad expressions we do on our own.
This is one of the reasons why it worries me that the government
has decided that paid work is a good thing and day services that
aren’t about moving people on to training and employment may be a
bad one. There is a lot wrong with day services: they can
segregate, isolate and restrict choice. But, for some people,
especially those on low incomes, they are also a place for social
contact, conviviality, informality and all the pleasures and warmth
that go with a cup of tea. Let’s remember the social importance of
such places. There needs to be a choice. Until such time as
government raises benefit levels so that anyone who wants to can
afford the price of a high street or shopping mall cappuccino or
cafŽ latte, they need to be there as an option.
Let’s not forget that loneliness is perhaps the most terrible
expression of the social isolation and social exclusion that
policymakers talk about so much. The social barriers people face
through disability and age discrimination are generators of this.
Loneliness is not just a personal trial, it is a social issue. If
governments want to challenge it, it is time to attack those
barriers that contribute to people’s loneliness by keeping them
impoverished, stigmatised, stereotyped and denied a sense of
self-worth. Surely this is a cause on which we can all unite.
Peter Beresford is involved in the psychiatric system