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Loneliness is the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Our Head of Research Psychology Dr Ariele Noble looks at the link between loneliness and mental health and explores how we combat loneliness by facilitating meaningful connections for our beneficiaries through Shout, and volunteers and businesses through our training offers.

Harnessing technology for connection

Very little has prepared mental health services for how to provide support in times of global crisis, when uncertainty and isolation become unavoidable shared experiences. Technology has become an essential tool for connecting us with others and it offers us ways to be listened to, to be understood, and to meet our true need to be cared for. This has become increasingly important given the challenges many of us have been experiencing from the first Covid-19 lockdown, throughout the pandemic and in current times.

Since launch, our text message support service Shout has taken more than 1.3 million conversations with 480,000 people in the UK challenged by distress, isolation, loneliness and fear following a pandemic, climate change and social trauma. For many, our Shout Volunteers are the first point of contact and sole source to connect and communicate and receive the care necessary to cope, stay safe, and explore support at home and within the community.

Thoughts of suicide are the main difficulty for which people contact Shout. Suicide is talked about in nearly 35% of the conversations we have; closely followed by depression (32%), anxiety (30%), relationships (25%), loneliness (16%) and self-harm (14%).

Combatting loneliness

Loneliness is often what underlies other difficulties, and is a significant cause of anxiety and depression. Loneliness happens when we feel no one is there for us and when we don’t feel cared for - not necessarily because of physical absence but because of a sense that we are not sharing meaningful thoughts and feelings with others. We can be surrounded by people and still lack meaningful contact.

For many, Shout is a first point of meaningful connection. Almost half of people who text Shout tell us that they felt they had no one else to talk to. Feedback confirms that people who use Shout most appreciate being listened to and feeling understood. Having the opportunity to talk is vital, as by doing so, we encourage social connectedness, which increases our resilience.

“I can not express what this conversation had done for me. I was taken out of the situation where I felt lonely and like no one cared. I honestly can not thank you enough for your help.” - Shout texter feedback

Research tells us that the need to feel understood has a neurological function. Feeling understood doesn’t just enhance our personal wellbeing, it also activates neural regions of the brain associated with feeling socially connected. The opposite is true as well. Feeling misunderstood activates parts of the brain that leave us feeling disconnected from the people around us. This is why helping others feel understood in conversation is important — by encouraging people to feel connected, we create a space for more open, honest and meaningful lives.

Shout Volunteer on the platform.png

Making meaningful connections through volunteering

Our training offer for volunteers is based on the principles of making meaningful connections with others, particularly at times of need and struggle.

This framework, designed by Shout, has trained nearly 10,000 volunteers to date and is informed by a huge data set generated from over one million conversations. 86% of Shout Texters find the service helpful and 74% say they feel calmer after their conversation.

Skills learned in these training sessions are highly transferable - helping people build rapport, help others with personal struggles like a breakup or grief, and talk about everyday concerns like relationships or loneliness.

Following Shout training, Volunteers report that they feel more comfortable dealing with difficult situations at work and at home and supporting colleagues, friends and family. Volunteers also report that Shout skills have given them more confidence pursuing new avenues and opportunities in their own personal lives.

“Unique opportunity to add to and improve my professional skills in a congenial environment.” - Shout Volunteer

Facilitating connections in a work environment

This framework also extends through our range of digital and in-person mental health training and tools to help employers improve workforce wellbeing and facilitate positive conversations and meaningful connections at work.

‘Mental Health Works’ is our digital training programme to support wellbeing in the workplace, in partnership with peer learning platform, Hive Learning. This training helps people develop self-awareness about their own wellbeing and practise the skills for more supportive conversations that will benefit them in every aspect of their work — whether building rapport and making positive connections, or talking about everyday work concerns like workload or tough feedback.

Our clinical experts also deliver bespoke in-person and remote training to help leaders, managers and employees develop critical skills for supportive conversations that enhance resilience, wellbeing and performance in the workplace.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, explore how we can help business employees make meaningful connections at work by contacting commissionus@mhiuk.org.