Mental Health Foundation logo for Mental Health Awarness Week 2022, 9-15 May 2022. Together we can tackle loneliness. #IveBeenThere

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), starting on Monday 9 May, is ‘Loneliness’.

The Mental Health Foundation has set the national theme to raise awareness of the impact of loneliness on our mental health and the practical steps we can all take to address it. Our MindWell campaign is about making connections and taking small steps to #ConnectMore with others.

I’m Gillian, part of the MindWell team and I worked on our #ConnectMore campaign resources. We focused on what we can do to feel less lonely, including joining groups or classes to meet like-minded people, trying peer support or reaching out to neighbours.

However, we know it’s not always so simple to combat loneliness. Mental health problems can be a barrier, money worries can stop us socialising, family tensions can make it hard to stay in touch. Plus it’s possible to be alone and not lonely, or be surrounded by people and feel terribly isolated.

I know this personally and, as one of the themes of this year’s MHAW is #IveBeenThere, it seems appropriate for me to write about it.

When I moved to Leeds, I came for work and didn’t know anyone beyond my colleagues. The first few months were difficult because I found it hard to make contact with other people. I’ve always volunteered and joined classes, but I was feeling depressed. The depression held me back from reaching out beyond my family (who weren’t in Leeds) and seeing my colleagues each day.

It took time, counselling and medication before I was feeling more able to think about the things I used to enjoy and start bringing them back into my life. I started volunteering, I made friends with neighbours and I tried evening classes. Eventually I began to make more friends in the city. Some of the best friends I still have were made by being honest about the depression and anxiety – an ex-colleague and a support group fellow volunteer.

I’ve had periods of loneliness since then: after leaving my previous job due to poor health, following bereavement, becoming a carer for a relative, when moving home and during the pandemic. I know that it’s really hard to admit to myself that I’m lonely, let alone tell anyone else. I also know that I can cope with loneliness and reach out to friends, call a helpline or join a support group.

I’m here to say that there is no reason to be ashamed if you feel lonely. It is surprisingly common, in all age groups and backgrounds. There are ways to feel less lonely and to connect with other people and there are services in Leeds if you need someone to talk to.

If you don’t believe me how common it is, then follow the hashtag #IveBeenThere on social media this week, as the Mental Health Foundation asks people to share their own stories. MindWell will be joining in on Twitter – follow us @MindWellLeeds.