In our hugely inter-connected, technology-enabled and social media-entwined world, it is a great irony that we have perhaps never felt more lonely and isolated.
Our ability to stay in touch with friends and family around the globe, and the power we possess in the palm of our hands to message, speak with and see the people who are dearest to us within seconds at the push of a button has not, it seems, made us immune from feelings of loneliness and isolation.
In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Recent newspaper reports citing research into friendships concluded that the number of under 35s who said they have one or no close friends has tripled in the last ten years and the Campaign to End Loneliness puts the number of lonely people in the UK at 9 million.
It is easy to dismiss these findings as the result of the nationally-enforced isolation brought about by the COVID pandemic, or by social trends that have placed much less emphasis on the importance of a sense of community and because increased social mobility (for some) has meant that people are now more likely to live away from the place of their birth and their close family than previous generations.
It is easy to look for reasons behind the statistics but less easy to reverse the trends or to support those who feel an acute sense of being lonely or isolated.
That sense of being lonely, which should not be confused with being alone as it is a common feeling to experience loneliness despite being regularly around other people and with lots of social contact, can have huge implications on our mental health and wellbeing. Everyone's version of loneliness is different and personal.
My own experience of depression and anxiety, especially around my breakdown, was that it isolated me from most of the people who were closest to me.
Some of that isolation was deliberate and helpful - I needed space and to get away from some people and experiences that would bring me down - but other parts of it were the result of not being able to manage or cope.
I know now that despite being an introvert and needing lots of my own quiet, me-space and time, I also need to ensure that I maintain contact with the key people in my life. My own mental health is dependent on getting the balance right - of choosing when to be alone and when to be in connection with others.
It has been said that the opposite of depression is connection: our need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves and have meaningful relationships with others.
It is by being part of something like the Speakers Collective, of which I am proud to be a member, that can bring to life the reality of the power of connections, community and people being there for you. It is the topic of much discussion between members of the Collective and perhaps a theme for one of our upcoming Meaningful Conversations, in which we talk about a key issue or topic that matters to society and invite people to join us to share their experiences and ideas.
Like so many important things in life and in maintaining good mental health, it is unlikely that having positive connections happens without some concerted, deliberate effort. Just as eating your five a day, walking your 10,000 steps or getting enough sleep each night, doesn't happen without some thought, neither does building or maintaining connections that can provide us with vital fuel for our engines.
I regularly hear from clients in my practice about their experiences of loneliness and isolation and the challenges they face in making changes to deal with these feelings.
I hear all the time about the importance of friendships (and the pain when these end or are challenged), romantic and sexual relationships and the nurturing qualities that can flow from having hobbies, interests and passions, which can provide a shared experience and/or a place to meet and connect with others. I have heard too how COVID and its impacts has put all of that under immense pressure.
If these things can make such a difference to our mental health and wellbeing, why do we often leave them to chance or are reluctant to "make the first move" and push ourselves forward?
Like so much, it may come down to the fear of rejection, avoiding social awkwardness and embarrassment, and yet the opportunities to seize these moments feel so great and the cost of not having them in our lives so large. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to consider how much effort we are making to build and maintain connections, especially if we feel loneliness and isolation in our lives. It is only ironic to experience loneliness with the power to do something about it if we leave it to chance.
The Speakers Collective is a Social Enterprise. We work together with a shared commitment to challenge stigma, facilitate important conversations and promote learning on a variety of social issues.