On 18th May 2022, the Philosophy Department at the University of Birmingham hosted a public engagement event organised by Francesco Antilici and sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy on Loneliness and Mental Health.
The event featured three talks and a question and answer session with the audience. In this brief report, I summarise the main contributions of the speakers.
What is the difference that makes a difference to loneliness?
Michael Larkin (Psychology, Aston University) described how our conception of loneliness is moving away from concerns about an isolated self and is reconfiguring loneliness as a social problem that needs to be solved. Rather than focusing on a deficit that affects the lonely individual, we are now much more interested in loneliness as a disruptive social force—acknowledging the importance of social relationships for health and for wellbeing.
Data driving this new focus includes the proven link between social isolation and mortality: people who are lonely have worse health prospects and they die sooner. Larkin showed how policy documents start taking notice of how the subjective experience of loneliness impacts people’s quality of life. However, psychological accounts of loneliness examine only underlying factors, life triggers, and personal thoughts and feelings.
What is missing? According to Larkin, we need a reflection on structural issues, and in particular issues surrounding the capacity to connect (attachment, emotional regulation, trauma) and the opportunity to connect (social capital, context of equity and equality).
Interventions should not be exclusively aimed at changing people’s behaviour (e.g. by reducing anxiety); they should also aim at changing social policies (e.g. by offering support to people struggling due to parenting or unemployment).
Epistemic injustice and loneliness in late-stage dementia
Lucienne Spencer (Institute of Mental Health, Birmingham) discussed loneliness as a mental health issue and explored the role of non-verbal communication. When we ignore other people’s attempts at communicating with gestures or in other non-verbal ways, they may become vulnerable to non-verbal testimonial injustice which is a serious risk for people who are neurodiverse.
Testimonial injustice occurs when people are not allowed to contribute to the production of knowledge due to negative stereotypes associated with some aspect of their identity: a person who cannot engage in verbal communication may be thought of as stupid or childlike, and thus excluded from exchanges of information. However, they may be able to communicate effectively in a non-verbal way.
Spencer offered examples of residents with late-stage dementia for whom the capacity to communicate verbally is impaired and the opportunity to communicate non-verbally is compromised by other people’s failure to recognise non-verbal expressions of approval or discomfort.
Loneliness and interpersonal connection
Ian Kidd (Philosophy, Nottingham) argued that there are different types of loneliness that should not be run together: for instance, we can distinguish situational loneliness (which is a temporary experience) from chronic loneliness (with is a more permanent state of being). We can also distinguish the absence of fleeting social encounters from a disruption of close relationships. Finally, in some cases of loneliness the desired connection is absent whereas in other cases it is out of reach.
But what if some experiences of loneliness don’t just involve absence but the sense that what is absent for us is present for others, the sense that things are out of reach for us but not for everybody else. This absence/presence structure common to many experiences of loneliness—the sense of exclusion—can help us with three tasks:
- identify different types of loneliness and genuine kinds of human experience;
- understand the psychology of loneliness—e.g., whether it is due to individual differences or prejudice;
- capture the moral and emotional dimensions of loneliness—such as bitterness, resentment, envy, and jealousy.