Survivor loneliness

I have written before of a certain  unique description of loneliness experienced by breast cancer survivors that has been termed survivor loneliness, which can go hand in hand with depression during and after treatment. In today’s Irish Times, there is an interesting piece on the link between loneliness and depression:

“In many ways we are all lonely. Deep inside all of us exists a well of emptiness, which can be filled only with the love and friendship of those encountered on our journey through life and beyond.

The more we research the brain the more it seems we are “hardwired” to long for human contact and acceptance.

Empathy lies at the heart of the human condition. But just as the connection between neurons in the brain shrivel and die if not nourished; so do human beings. We desperately crave affection and acceptance – these are the nutrients that make us grow and develop – from the cradle to the grave.

But for many, loneliness is a constant companion: an aching emptiness yearning to be filled. Life for some can be a bleak and arid desert where the waters of companionship and love are in extremely short supply.

For those with depression, loneliness can be a two-pronged enemy. On its own it can often be a powerful trigger to both kick start and prolong bouts of low mood. Then when the red flag of depression actually arrives, it creates its own special brand of isolation.

I often feel that loneliness is an underestimated stress trigger for depression – especially in our fast moving, technologically isolating modern world; where there is no time to “waste” on actually talking to each other; where we are all immersed in a sea of “individualism”; so busy with our own needs; obsessed with our “houses” but forgetting the importance of “home and hospitableness”; so preoccupied with the packaging of life that we forget the substance lying beneath.

Life can be very cruel to some – with tragedy, loss, bullying, relationship breakdowns and broken dreams confining them to mere spectators – enviously observing those more fortunate, surrounded by love, affection and acceptance.

Some may find the loneliness too much and spiral into depression. Young and old; male and female; rich and poor; all are at risk for loneliness is a cruel companion.

For those going through a bout of depression, loneliness can present in a different but equally destructive manner.

When we are very down, our thinking can become so negative that we may find ourselves feeling totally isolated and lonely. We become worthless; of no value to ourselves or others; not worth talking to; a burden on those closest to us; walled off in a world of pain and emptiness.

Because they find it so hard to communicate the way they feel, many with depression feel isolated from even those closest to them – a particularly distressing state for both.

This loneliness can be very destructive to relationships and can, in some cases, lead to them breaking down – causing further loneliness, isolation and, on occasion, suicide.

There is much for all of us to learn from a deeper understanding of loneliness and its role in mental health. Every day we will encounter at least one person who will be lonely – but will we notice or care?

Suppose we decided to become more attentive; decided to ‘waste’ some of our precious time, sharing it with somebody who we feel is lonely and helping to fill that empty void just think of the positive effect we could have.

In many ways there has been a subtle shift of responsibility for mental health away from the personal to the “state”. Many feel it is nothing to do with them but constantly wonder why self harm is such a problem. If all of us realised our immense capacity to transform the lives of others with a kind word and open heart and were prepared to do so – how many lives could be transformed?

There will be many reading this who will be living in the isolated world of depression, who are cut off and lonely and longing for somebody to break the wall of silence and pain.

Some will have become down because they were lonely to begin with and their depression only adds to their feelings of worthlessness.

Some, often men under the age of 35, may be hiding their loneliness and inner pain from those closest to them.

All will feel they are on their own and will have to face it alone, thinking, who else can help?

My message is simple – you are not alone. Negative thinking is the chain that is binding you; the belief that nobody could understand or help and that you are on your own. In reality, those closest to you both love and care for you and you only have to “open up” to get the help you so richly deserve. If you are unable to do so, or if you are genuinely on your own, then groups like Aware are there with a listening ear and open mind to help dissolve the wall of isolation and pain that surrounds you.”


I would urge you if you are feeling depressed, lonely or finding it hard to cope with fearful or anxious thoughts, to seek help. Find a therapist, find a support group, go meet and talk with others who will understand what you are experiencing. You are not alone, however much it may feel that way to you now.

Related Post: Survivor loneliness of women after breast cancer