Loneliness and Depression

There is a very interesting article in today’s SF Chronicle. In “Social Isolation: A Significant Health Issue,” Katherine Seligman talks about the prevalence and stigma of loneliness. She sites a study that finds that 20 percent of all individuals are at any given time unhappy because of social isolation. She indicates that more and more these days, particularly with our (what she calls) “cult of busyness,” people are lonely. The article makes an excellent point about the stigma of loneliness. People tend not to talk about feeling lonely because of this stigma: to be lonely is to be thought of as a loser, someone incapable of attracting others.
This has been my experience in terms of the people whom I see in my psychotherapy practice. Quite often when people come in dealing with depression or anxiety, they may lack significant relationships in their lives, either in terms of a significant other or good, close friends. The sense of isolation and loneliness is depressing and leads to lack of motivation and further isolation and retreat.
But loneliness is not only a mater of lacking these types of relationships. A particular passage in the article caught my attention: “Often it’s not the person who lives alone who’s the loneliest. In fact, being alone is distinct from feeling lonely. Psychologists say that people with kids, partners and demanding jobs can feel isolated when they fail to heed their own needs for connection.” I find in my work that often the focus is helping the client identify and meet his or her own needs. It can be much easier for people to focus on others – and sometimes, as in the case of parents, or caregivers for those ill, doing so is necessary. But sometimes this type of focus also reflects a lifetime of putting one’s own needs second. The work we do in therapy – starting with preserving this hour a week just for the client – is to address one’s own needs.
The article in the Chronicle was very interesting and addressed an issue not often talked about. However, the author did not talk about the usefulness of psychotherapy to deal with loneliness. Quite often the focus in my work is to address issues of loneliness (and of course depression and anxiety). The work is about forming this significant relationship, between client and therapist, and to then help think together about what else is needed in one’s life. When this work is successful, I find that my clients are more engaged in life, have better relationships, and more easily take time for themselves.

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