Many of us crave solitude. In fact it was the focus of my dissertation back in 1997, and I still agree with most of it! In brief, solitude is restorative and peaceful when desired. However, undesired solitude soon turns to loneliness, which is increasingly becoming a worldwide epidemic.

Loneliness is not simply being alone. People with few friends can feel fulfilled; people with vast social networks can feel empty and disconnected. It’s all about how a person feels. Feelings of chronic loneliness can lead to (or exacerbate) health problems, making people more susceptible to viruses, cognitive decline and dementia. Loneliness has also been linked to depression, but not all lonely people are depressed. In his excellent new book (“Lost Connections”) Johann Hari stresses that depression and anxiety have three kinds of causes: biological, psychological and social. Lonely people tend to be anxious and hyper-vigilant, often taking offence where none was intended, so they stay home and become even lonelier. This snowball effect can spiral into depression.

Everyone, of course, is lonely sometimes, especially after the loss of a loved one or a move to a new area. The elderly are at higher risk of chronic loneliness because they have often lost partners, siblings and friends, and are also more likely to have health and mobility problems. However, loneliness has also skyrocketed among teens and young adults, which many experts blame on social media, claiming that it hinders the development of the real world skills necessary to build close friendships. Conversations by text or on Facebook messenger may be filled with smiley emojis, but they leave us feeling empty because they lack depth and empathy. Fewer people are prepared to really listen, and not being heard makes us feel even more alone.

The best antidote for loneliness is the company of other like-minded individuals sharing a mutually enjoyable activity, but this is easier said than done! People suffering from psychological issues are often reluctant to reach out for support.However, as I have mentioned before, I am willing to provide pro-bono counselling to British Society members in exchange for a charitable donation to be given directly to the British Society.

Penny Freeland has an MA in Guidance and Counselling from Durham University, England. For further information please contact PenelopeFreeland@gmail.com