Exploring what arts and culture have to offer efforts to prevent loneliness is the focus of my PhD research. Loneliness is a subjective feeling of a gap between the relationships a person wants and what they have. Three types of loneliness have been described in academic and grey literature (Mansfield et al., 2019)
- Social – absence of social connection, the perception of social isolation and dissatisfaction with the quality of relationships;
- Emotional – absence or loss of meaningful relationships that meet a deeply felt need to be recognized and ‘belong’ to someone or to a group such as at work, or in a family; and
- Existential – less related to the specifics of relationships but is focused upon a more global evaluation of disconnection from others and the wider world.
The links between loneliness and health have been such a concern that ministers have been appointed and an epidemic declared. Renfrewshire has a variety of initiatives to tackle loneliness and social isolation. From volunteer Connectedness Champions with RAMH to the recent appointment by the Renfrewshire Health and Social Care Partnership of a Loneliness and Isolation Champion.The COVID‑19 pandemic and social distancing have increased focus on loneliness with a range of surveys and studies investigating the effect of the pandemic and lockdown on the links between loneliness and mental health (see here, here and here).
Discussions on loneliness highlight the importance connections with other people and the wider community. My experience of volunteering showed that connection was the starting point for prevention. As a befriender, I was aware of the temporary nature of the connection I was providing, and the focus was on developing meaningful activities. As a group facilitator, I found that the more meaningful an activity was, the more likely meaningful relationships and new identities were developed, leading to physical and mental health improvements. Both for myself and others, during lockdown, these new relationships and identities have greatly helped the prevention of loneliness. On reflection, I realised I have spent the last few years, trying to understand what transforms a connection into a meaningful activity. The discussions on tackling loneliness mention the importance of meaningful places and relationships, there is less discussion on how meaning is formed through participating in activities. This topic is something I would like to continue to investigate.
My research will look at what arts and health has to offer in creating meanings that reduce loneliness. I attended a webinar led by Arts & Health South West on the topic of evaluating Arts, Loneliness and Isolation. Two suggestions regarding what the arts had to offer in tackling loneliness resonated with the idea that there are ways to meaningful ways to connect without physically meeting people.
The first suggestion was arts as a catalyst for imagination that enables us to meaningfully connect with the wider world, to be alone but not lonely. For my JogScotland group, I set challenges that often involved asking for photographs to fit a theme. People have found this connected them to their surroundings, both through the taking of the photo and in the discovery or rediscovery of places, in noticing flora, fauna and features and reflecting later on what the photos meant to them. This connection was particularly valuable as people were feeling disconnected from their local area due to lockdown.
The second suggestion which chimed was something specific to the arts about expressing, being seen, witnessed and accepted. During my volunteering to plan an art exhibition for those with lived in experiences of mental health, we asked what the exhibition meant to people and found various ways that it made exhibitors felt less alone. One of the ways was the art they created provided a sense of connection to other people. The artworks were a way of making people feel seen, in their totality, in the way they wanted to be seen. By making themselves seen, others could see them and it helped them feel less alone even though they hadn’t connected to a person or felt belonging with a group. This was further enhanced by the acceptance exhibitors found through this sharing of themselves.
Loneliness is usually discussed in terms of a deficit, such as the quantity or quality of relationships, or a lack of belonging and connection, of generally not feeling enough. This also creates stigma around the term loneliness. The two suggestions for the role of arts, point to a positive approach to loneliness, by emphasizing and expanding the sense of what people have, one that would be useful for prevention where people are not yet ‘in deficit’. I look forward to exploring these ideas further and understand what they mean in practice.
Mansfield, L., Daykin, N., Meads, C., Tomlinson, A., Gray, K., Lane, J. and Victor, C. (2019) A conceptual review of loneliness across the adult life course (16+ years) Synthesis of qualitative studies [Online]. What Works Wellbeing. Available: https://whatworkswellbeing.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/V3-FINAL-Loneliness-conceptual-review.pdf [Accessed 13 May 2020].