Lonely places

It’s a cliché that when you are surrounded by crowds of people in a busy place it is still quite possible to feel very, very lonely. This paradox has always resonated with me, having spent over half my life living and working in and around overcrowded London.

In the 1970s I came across Jonathan Raban’s ‘Soft City’ in a London library. Over the years since then I had forgotten the title of the book. However, its perceptiveness had made an impression on me and I was reminded of the book when it was republished a few years ago. I bought a copy and re-read it, and it had lost none of its impact. The press described it as ‘a psychological handbook for urban survival’. But of course London isn’t the only place where busy life and loneliness exist side by side. And this apparent paradox can occur just as much in mental space as in physical space.

Fast forward to 2017 and the National Counselling Society has published an article entitled ‘City-dwellers are prone to depression’. The article refers to the findings of Canadian neuroscientist Professor Colin Ellard. He has conducted a number of virtual reality experiments and concluded that ‘When people are in these very dense environments that produce oppressiveness and increase negative emotion, it seems logical that those things will spin off into the ways we understand other people and the way we treat them. Those are the variables that are most likely to show relationships with [increased incidence of] psychiatric illness’. These conclusions support much existing research uncovering the negative impact of high density living on the mental health of city residents.

The parallel relationship between loneliness and depression is impossible to ignore. There are so many common factors – the feeling of disconnection from your surroundings, the irrelevance of the life going on around you, the inability – even aversion – to forming any sort of relationship with the day to day stuff that seems to have meaning for everyone apart from you. Engagement with it seems fruitless.

The barriers between the lonely or depressed and the wider world can therefore seem unbreachable. This is not necessarily about feelings of hostility, more complete indifference. Why even bother to get up in the morning? In such a frame of mind it is quite likely that the more people you are confronted with the less inclined you will be to engage. Efforts to kick-start any recovery from this lonely place will feel like trying to climb a mountain.

Raban describes London as ‘an environment which is perceived as invincibly impersonal and alien’. This difficulty in making sense of the wider world and its impersonal and alien character will probably resonate with most people who feel lonely, depressed or disconnected. Where do they find the resources and motivation to make change happen? The key missing ingredient here is relationship. To return to a key truth – it all starts with talking.