By James Drane
We are in December. The snow is here. Santa Claus is coming. The news is all about shopping. What we do not hear about or give much attention to is the fact that the Christmas/Hanukkah season is also a time for enjoying our relationships. For those without warm and close relationships, this also happens to be the loneliness season.
I completed a psychiatric residency in the 1970s and do not remember any discussion of loneliness or even a mention of loneliness in our books. And yet, there is overwhelming evidence that loneliness is a serious human problem. Loneliness hurts. It can make a person sick. If loneliness is severe, it can even cause death.
One reason perhaps for inattention to loneliness in my psychiatric residency was the background Freudian theory and psychoanalytic focus of the program. Sigmund Freud turned attention inward toward the self; self-analysis, self-evaluation, self-development. With all attention directed inward, there was little space for attention directed outward. Maybe a degree of loneliness was assumed to be natural, normal, maybe even healthy.
The reasons why people become lonely are many. Besides the self-centered influence of today’s culture, our upcoming Christmas is a season of family togetherness and when family members are missing there is loneliness. Loneliness has a genetic component too, so it can be inherited. In most cases, however, loneliness is environmentally caused; it comes from a surrounding circumstance. The illness of loneliness is most frequently caused by being deprived as a baby or young person of loving family environment. Loneliness can also be an occasional and passing experience. If however its roots are genetic or if it comes from a deficient early childhood environment, then it will likely be deeply rooted and qualify as a serious psychiatric illness.
As is the case with other psychiatric illnesses, loneliness tends to have a strong influence on other aspects of a personality. Loneliness usually makes a person shy, self-doubting, disposed to anger, overly sensitive to criticism.
Although without a prominent place in psychiatric training during the 1970s, loneliness did receive considerable attention in the public media after the Soviet collapse. Communist officials in Romania and in the Soviet Union had taken babies from parents and put them into government facilities in order to make them into good Marxists. Personal love and care was largely missing in the government facilities and the children grew up not just without becoming good Marxists but with serious emotional illnesses and personality disorders. Early separation from family was shown to have been the cause of serious emotional disorders. It even caused defects in brain development associated with memory, decision-making and social interaction.
Children born to adolescent mothers are vulnerable, as are children separated from parents by divorce. When mothers have to work they may not have enough time to spend with their children, and their children suffer from missing them. Bullying at school also causes isolation and loneliness from others. Mental and emotional disabilities outrank physical disabilities in American children today, and in many cases the mental and emotional disabilities have their origin in early childhood loneliness. Mothers matter, and loving mothers make all the difference in the world for children.
Good early childhood teachers can stop bullying at school, recognize lonely kids and can reach out to them. Good teachers can be like good therapists. In some cases, they may even be like good mothers. Kids in good foster care can also be greatly helped. Good societies will have programs to help mothers in need, to provide the love and care which every child needs.
Adults suffering from loneliness can also be helped. A good therapist first recognizes loneliness. Then the therapist can help his or her patient to respond to others and to form relations with them. Getting a loving pet can also be a big help. Joining a church community can also help.
Although left unmentioned in my psychiatry books back the 1970s, long-lasting loneliness qualifies as a serious emotional illness. It needs to be recognized and it ought to be treated. One need not however have a degree in psychology or psychiatry to help persons with this illness. Teachers can help. So can church communities and foster parents. Ordinary people, too, can help by reaching out to others with warmth.
We all have a role to play in addressing the problem of loneliness which is increasing in U.S. society. We now know that it can have a devastating effect on human life. And we can all make a difference. Just be a friend, a loving person, and reach out to someone during this season.
James Drane, Ph.D., is the Russell Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.