On Monday 19th November 2012 the centre Brighton was bustling and busy as usual. People going about their day to day excursions, starting the working week as usual, the nights getting shorter and winter drawing in. As the afternoon advanced and the sun started to dim, something sad was discovered in a cream Victorian apartment in a road in central Brighton. A skeleton had been discovered with only a pair of socks on lying behind an armchair.
This was no suspicious death, this was an extremely sad example of a part of society that isn’t spoken of very often. Loneliness. The kind of loneliness that draws pity from your heart when you hear of a man being dead for two years and no one noticing. The sorrow you feel when you think of his days leading up to his early death at the age of 50 and what that must have entailed.
His neighbours said they hadn’t noticed when they hadn’t seen him for a while “We all keep ourselves to ourselves here, and we thought he’d moved out”. The first thing anyone suspected anything is when the housing association in charge of his tenency visited the property on account of arrears that had been left unpaid.
If only this was a rare case. It is sadly not, in fact the number of state welfare funerals rose from 36 in 2006/7 to 79 2011/12.
According to the General Lifestyle Survey published in 2011 after a 40 year project, adults aged 25-44 were five times more likely to be living alone in 2011 (10%) than they were in 1973 (2%).
The gentleman found in central Brighton last year was one of many people around the UK who had passed from being unknown into the unknown. No goodbyes, no words, no tears were used to mark his departure. No family or friends to be traced, hard as the council tried they could not connect him to any of the other 221,950 adult humans in Brighton, or anywhere else in Britain.
We live in a society saturated with connectivity, availability,social networks and more communication than ever. Email, smart phones, iPads, Skype, Twitter, Apps et al. The technology advance into the 21st century is unprecedented and mimics a revolution of its own, yet there are still people sitting alone night after night not having contact with anyone.
Not having a conversation with someone, maybe watching T.V all night until sleep takes over and they wake up the next day in the same place they fell asleep. Pouring alcohol into the emptiness they feel when they get back from the shop, having seen on the journey home a couple sharing a coffee and a kiss outside a cafe or friends laughing while they walk down the street .
In 1966 the single “Eleanor Rigby” was released by the Beatles, it spent four weeks at number one on the British charts. The lyrics are thought provoking and Lennon/McCartney capture a deep sense of melancholy from the death Eleanor Rigby. It is said to have been a song to express the void left in society post World War II, although it seems it is more applicable now than ever before. With a breakdown in community solidarity, especially in our densely populated, sprawling cities, the number of Eleanor Rigbys has increased.
In an article by Abi Jackson written for the Romford Recorder, Eleanor a 40 year old professional talks of her life outside of work “I can spend some weekends not speaking to a soul. I’m lucky to have a full, rich work life, but once I’m home I am very much alone, and sometimes the loneliness is crippling.” How can this be possible in 2013? It seems that although most of society are tweeting about what they had for dinner with their family or how great their holiday was with their friends, some individuals are finding it difficult to make connections with those around them.
What is it that has failed these people? Is it those they work with who have failed to notice the unhappy loneliness of a colleague? Is it the failings of a parent who didn’t love their child enough to stay in contact? Is it the way people form friendships now or even the kind of subcultures that are seen today.
Of course some people don’t like to be social, it is a lifestyle choice that doesn’t fit with the aspirational way of life for most Western societies, it doesn’t mean it is wrong. If one likes their own company and it doesn’t negatively impact their sense of well being then thats great. The problem faced here though is that most of the people who spend most of the time by themselves don’t choose to be that way. It happens and nobody notices.
In 2012 pages on mental health charity Mind’s website about loneliness were among the most-visited receiving around 80,000 visits. “People who are socially isolated are more likely to suffer stress, lower self esteem and sleep problems, and over a long period of time this can cause other problems like depression and anxiety if not resolved,” Head of Information at Mind, Bridget O’Connell explains.
Symptoms like these are increasingly felt throughout urban areas in Western societies. Despite Tokyo, being one of the most affluent cities and Japan being low crime society, it has for a long time recorded extremely high suicide rates. The World Health Organisation posted results in a 2009 survey, 24.4 suicides per 100,000 people, ranking second among the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations after Russia’s 30.1. The high-stress working environment in Tokyo is widely known about, as is the lack of space in the city. These look like the kinds of causes of the symptoms spoken of by Bridget O’Connell.
“It’s such an awful feeling. I feel as if my existence is pointless, and like I must have become really unpopular and it makes me feel like I must be a horrible person. It’s caused me to become depressed and self critical, and to almost give up on life and shut down emotionally.” Experiences like Eleanor’s prove you don’t have to have retreated completely from society to feel like you don’t exist. There are fully functioning members of society who are cut off emotionally from the rest of us and no one bothers to repair this, its a damning indictment on the society we live in.
It’s a shame that 47 years after Eleanor Rigby spent four weeks at number 1 in the British charts, the British people are still letting their Eleanors down.
Mind’s website provides helpful tips and ideas for people struggling to bond with other people such as exercise classes or walking groups, social groups for lesbian, gay or bisexual people, art, music or poetry groups, dance classes, gardening groups and many more. It is a start in bridging the gap in peoples lives and improving their quality of life.
For support and information about loneliness or other mental health and wellbeing issues, visit http://www.mind.org.uk
All Photos © P.L.M.R 2013