We have known for some time that loneliness can be both a trigger for and a consequence of mental health issues, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity of lockdowns have brought home the centrality of social connections for our wellbeing. In this public engagement event sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy, we asked three experts in philosophy and psychology to talk about the relationship between loneliness and mental health, which the Mental Health Foundation has chosen as the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year.
Our three talks were:
What is the difference that makes a difference to loneliness?
Michael Larkin (Aston University)
In recent years, loneliness has undergone a transformation, from being construed as something we might have thought of as a relatively common personal experience, to something that is often framed as a social problem. Loneliness appears to have been transformed into a disruptive force through it’s association with increased risk of mortality and illness. This is a non-trivial association, but as it maps onto experiences of loneliness it is not a straightforward one. If we agree that this makes loneliness into a problem that requires solutions, then it is worth thinking about the kinds of solutions which will make the most difference.
In this talk, I want to acknowledge that interventions involving work with individuals, and others involving work with communities, can both be helpful in alleviating certain kinds of loneliness. But I also want to argue that we need to think about how more long-term structural conditions are essential to reducing loneliness, improving human experience, and thus, contributing to health and wellbeing.
Epistemic injustice and loneliness in late-stage dementia
Lucienne Spencer (University of Birmingham)
Non-verbal expression is a vital, though often overlooked, form of communication, particularly for people who are neurodiverse. Dependency upon non-verbal expression is common in people with ‘intellectual disabilities’, autism and late-stage dementia. Nevertheless, non-verbal communication from neurodiverse people is often not given the credibility it deserves. In fact, it is frequently dismissed as altogether meaningless. Consequently, people who express non-verbally are often isolated from rich social interaction and are especially vulnerable to loneliness
Through this talk, I will attribute this social isolation to what I refer to as ‘non-verbal testimonial injustice’. Non-verbal testimonial injustice occurs when meaningful communications from non-verbal people are dismissed or ignored in virtue of one or more identity prejudices. Using late-stage dementia as a case study, I argue that the current definition of ‘testimonial injustice’ in the literature should be expanded to include all communicative practices, whether verbal or non-verbal, in order to encompass the epistemic harms inflicted upon some of the most marginalised in our society. I also put forward an account of ‘non-verbal testimonial justice’ as a means of combatting the loneliness frequently experienced by people who depend on non-verbal communication.
Loneliness and interpersonal connection
Ian James Kidd (University of Nottingham)
I want to complicate the common idea that loneliness is the experience of absence. The Campaign to End Loneliness, for instance, defines loneliness in terms of a loss or lack of social contact, creating a 'mismatch' between the quality ad quantity of social contacts we have and those we want. I think that's right as far as it goes, but this 'absence account' leaves out something crucial: the social experiences that are absent for us are also experienced as being present or available for other people. When we are lonely, the experiences of companionship that we lack and long for are recognised to be available - and taken up and enjoyed - by other people.
What is painfully absent for us is so obviously happily present for others. Think of Edward Hopper's famous paintings of loneliness - people staring out of a window at a world filled with other people happily taking up the possibilities one so badly longs for). If this is right, experiences of loneliness have a complex absence/presence structure. At the end of my talk, I speculate that the present-for-others dimension of loneliness might explain why sustained experiences of loneliness can feed bitterness, suspiciousness, jealously, resentment and other self-destructive qualities.