Are You Lonesome Tonight?
By: Beth McHugh 2007
The relationship between loneliness and mental health is a well established one. In fact, the relationship between loneliness and health issues of many persuasions has been well documented by numerous researchers. We humans are a species that prefers to congregate in groups because it’s good for our mental health.
This was very apparent in the case of one of my clients, Sally. Sally had successfully beaten a long-standing case of depression and had gone back to college, changed her career and embarked on a new job. The latter necessitated a move to another neighborhood and it was just months after that move that Sally came to see me again. In her words, she felt like she was “sliding down the greasy pole again.” For Sally, that meant depression.
So I asked her how various aspects of her life were going. Her relationship with her husband was fine, her kids were okay and she especially liked her new job. “Was it placing undue demands on her?” I enquired. She said she enjoyed the challenge. After circling around for a while, we finally hit on what was bothering Sally. It was the neighborhood she lived in. It was toxic.
Used to a friendly environment in her previous suburb, Sally slowly realized that it was the neighbors who were making her feel isolated. Of course, it was not the neighbors per se, but as Sally explained, it was an unfriendly street. Her immediate neighbors did not acknowledge her or her family, even when they came home from shopping and were in the driveway just feet away from their fellow street-dwellers. Nobody knew anyone’s name. One attempt at waving to a neighbor resulted in a turned back. On the day she moved in, her next door neighbor announced that she “didn’t believe in getting close to the neighbors” and closed the door in her face.
As Sally worked three days a week, she thankfully only experienced this social isolation for a limited period, and yet it had an effect on her wellbeing. Used to being in a friendly neighborhood, Sally found that the constant feeling of being alienated from her immediate fellow humans was eroding her mental health.
It was only when she was asked had she seen her next door neighbor lately and found out that he had died alone on the back steps of his house, did she realize how toxic this neighborhood was. Although she had tried to make friends with the deceased, her attempts had been rebuffed. The man had paid the ultimate price for his actions, having died of exposure over a period of three nights after a fall.
So what makes some people so unfriendly and unable or unwilling to interact with their neighbors? In times gone past, neighbors relied on one another, not only for social interaction but sometimes for survival during difficult times. It is sad that in our larger cities this communication is breaking down so that many people are so individualistic and independent that they are nameless and faceless.
It doesn’t make for good mental, and as we saw, physical health
either. Sally moved her family to a more user-friendly street. Her symptoms
disappeared. She’s doing well.