The curses of loneliness and isolation

Again this is not the easiest post in the world for me to write, and it might come back and bite me in the future. But hey, publish and be damned and all that.

As children, we very quickly find ourselves in social environments – nursery and then school. (This is something I see as a good thing). Yet once we come out of formal education, staying in touch becomes that little bit more difficult – despite the development and advances in social media. The routine of meeting up with people you see day in day out suddenly goes out of the window.

Other than noticing some small groups of ex-pupils outside the school gates of my secondary school as the day ended, the first time that I really noticed the impact of not having this large group of people to meet up with on a daily basis was during my year out between college and university. And the isolation was crushing. This was despite the fact that in my head I had taken the decision not to go to university straight after sixth form college. In my mind I simply was not ready for the move. That, and I genuinely had no idea how well I was going to do in my A-levels, thus making applying with predicted grades (which I think is a nonsense anyway) a risk I wasn’t prepared to take.

Since leaving the civil service, the issues of loneliness and isolation have crept up again as for the past two months, there has been little in the way of everyday gatherings of people that in work we often take for granted – whether it’s the normal day-to-day banter you have with the people you work with or those you meet up for drinks with after work.

Social media has taken the sting out of much of what could have been an implosion that I experienced in the late 1990s and early 2000s after finishing college and university respectively. Even though my vocal cords are not being exercised in conversation, my mind definitely is. Dammit it’s as if my mind is continually switched on 24/7!

Over the past few months my day-to-day life has been a self-imposed routine of swimming, tweeting, eating and sleeping – waiting until these courses that I’ve now enrolled on have gotten going, alongside those voluntary groups that – and I don’t know if it’s unique to Cambridge – build their activities around the academic calendar. These have been interspersed with coffees and gatherings with a number of people from a variety of different backgrounds – which have had the effect of giving me the kicks up the backside that I think I need. (For which I’m really grateful as it was one of these gatherings that got this blog off the ground).

There are three parts I want to cover in this piece: The first is the impact on people with disabilities; the second the impact on young people leaving school/college/university with no jobs to go into, (which could also apply to those being made redundant too) and finally the rise of ‘hub working’ – where self-employed types working in footloose industries can work in places at low cost surrounded by others in similar work areas in the hope (as far as those behind the hubs – often public sector organisations or charitable foundations) that having them all in one place will lead to innovation, creativity, growth and jobs.

Impact on people with disabilities

Puffles follows and is followed by a number of people with a variety of disabilities – with various impacts on their lives. The sad thing that I’ve picked up in terms of (lack of) media coverage has been on how the positive impact of social media on the lives of disabled people has received limited attention, and ditto the negative impact of cuts to public transport and cuts to those services that form a social lifeline to those people who use them.

I regularly use public transport myself – and depended on it during my commuting days. It was the little things – like the impact of a modern bus vs the knackered out “Rail replacement style” chug-mobiles that I picked up on.

Then there is the impact that meeting up with people can have – and again I saw this first hand at the first significant gathering of people who followed Puffles down in Brighton earlier this year. (Otherwise known as “Pufflescamp” and to which over 20 people turned up). The people that I’ve met and/or conversed with have all told me that they want to contribute something – and they have all given examples of how a range of different policies have thrown up barriers that have or are preventing them from doing so. Policies that increase that loneliness and isolation really do not help.  Not only that, the isolation from the rest of society helps feed the poison of hate crimes against disabled people. This must stop. If increasing day-to-day contact between people of different sexualities, genders, ethnicities, cultures and religions increases understanding with our diverse societies, is the same not true for those people with disabilities who are part of our families and societies?

Young people and those made redundant

I think I’ve only been into a job centre once – when my dad took me there in the late 1990s. As a confused, depressed 18/19 year old I looked around thinking ‘Now what?’ – This was before the days of the state getting its act together on helping young people in the transition from education to the world of work. I was fortunate to secure permanent employment not long after. More and more young people are not so luckysometimes with tragic consequences. Cannot they as a political and economic establishment and we as a society do better for our young people?

I dread to think what the impact of 200 rejection letters would have on my mental health – let alone self-esteem. Having employer after employer effectively saying “You’re not good enough” must be devastating. It was bad enough for me having the rejections when I was out of work – not to say the numerous applications for transfers when I was in work during the civil service. (I was a junior administrative officer for over 2 years and got turned down for a number of promotions to the next grade above before being accepted for the in-service Fast Stream – which was 2 grades above. Make of that what you will).

One of the things that got me back on track was the Prince’s Trust Team Programme - something that I commend to any young person who finds themselves really struggling to find work. Personally I would like to see a significant increase in programmes of this nature – with the possibility of increasing benefit payments to those who take part in them. One of the benefits I saw in those who took part in the programme with me was the impact of having something positive to get out of bed in the morning for – something that they could do without losing the benefits that for them put food on the table.

The hub model

This is something I picked up on during my time in the civil service – the setting up of ‘hives’ across localities with the intention that small firms and self-employed people would locate to these areas and help drive jobs and growth in areas suffering from multiple deprivation.

Post-civil-service I stumbled across Cambridge’s own little hive. This is all around the site where the sustainable Smartlife Centre is, as well as Cambridge Regional College – where I’m doing a teacher-training course this term. Cambridge’s Hive is due to open in late 2011 so I’ll be keeping tabs on what it’ll be like once it’s up and running. I quite like the idea of wandering into a hive and bouncing ideas off people – even though I may not be working for the same organisation as in days gone by.

It’s not just the day-to-day stuff either. I’ve been to a number of events this year where I’ve met some of the most open-minded, intelligent and dynamic people who are at the cutting edge of their fields. These were the people who sowed the seeds in my mind of a number of different projects that I’ll be developing further in the near future.

On the issue of loneliness and isolation, the reason why I’ve raised this is that I’m not very good “working from home” – something I found when I did this in the civil service. I found I was not as productive as I would have liked to have been in the way that my colleagues who did work regularly (quite often line managers preparing for or returning from maternity leave) were able to do. And as a defence for those women who did take maternity leave, the civil service is better for having decent maternity leave arrangements and flexibilities for people with young families. If there are (in particular large-scale) employers out there more than willing to see women with young children as a burden, it’s your loss.

The challenge for very small firms in particular as far as policy-makers is concerned is how to reduce the impact that childcare has on those that work for them – which is why childcare is such an important policy issue for the economy. And that is before even considering that children are our future – hence its importance on society in general.

In terms of hubs and small firms, one thing I hope that Cambridge’s Hive – as well as others – will be more proactive on, is holding events that will get those who use them (as well as those beyond) to get together whether it be for business or social events to oil the machines that are local economies. A number of towns and cities have their own networks - such as Junior Chambers - that already exist who can already carry out these functions. Can these organisations bring self-employed and freelance types into their networks for the benefit of wider society as well as local economies? I hope so.

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2 Responses to The curses of loneliness and isolation

  1. Pingback: The ghost of Christmas future | A dragon's best friend

  2. I found your post extremely moving and applaud your honesty and frankness. I am glad you have shared your experiences and can assure you that you are not alone. Our research has found that being a young person has come up as the 4th major issue concerning loneliness, across the 4 neighbourhoods we are currently working in http://www.jrf.org.uk/node/63702
    Transitions are hard and the peer pressure involved with being a young person can be an incredibly isolating time. Being perceived as different is again a terrible feeling and one often raised with us with the people we spoke to who had a disability or impairment.
    As for being unemployed or self employed, the impact this can have on our self worth is often underplayed and our self esteem can really take a battering, especially when we lose the social networks and friendships that we could have with work.
    All my close friends are those I have gained through work. This job has heightened my awareness of loneliness and a bit like hub working, left me feeling quite vulnerable and lonely, especially at the beginning . Working on my own in 4 neighbourhoods, across two cities, meant a lot of hot desking and always being in other peoples’ places and spaces.
    This is very hard if that’s not where you belong and takes time, resilience and lots of conversations before you can come and go and feel a part of something.
    People need social activities and dare I say it, Ice breakers, to start the first steps of getting to know someone new, which is one of the biggest challenges faced by people who experience loneliness.

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