Lifting seldom-heard voices in order to re-examine traditional social constructs and to cultivate love and empathy

Innovations for Combating Loneliness

While researching for the Loneliness Series I found several ideas for combating loneliness. Most of them were reflective of each other and were “solution lite.” Lots of articles seem to think that you should just join a club or get out of the house. Charlie, in our forum, said that only if people were good “joiners” would those solutions work. But what if you’re not a good “joiner”? In the last article I offered some more specific solutions from Kelly Smyth-Dent that challenged the lonely person to look at their thinking patterns and self-talk. These ideas can be a challenge to a lonely person and involves getting out of one’s comfort zone.

Just as a reminder, if you are not lonely do not dismiss someone who shares that they are lonely by telling that person they need to love themselves. A better way to solve loneliness in our world is to reach out to those who are lonely. Or if someone mentions that they are lonely, invite them along with you to do something.

“I was just coming out of a depression and was invited to a big party by someone I didn’t know well. There would be no one there who I knew, and I was scared to go. I went but I was shy, tearful, and quiet. A bunch of women took me into their group during the party. What a difference that made for me!” -Fran

I found one innovative solution to loneliness based in the United Kingdom. It is a non-profit group called the Befriending Scheme. This group reaches out to vulnerable adults or “friends.” It could be someone who is elderly or someone with a disability. Volunteers are matched by the agency with up to five different potential friends based on similar interests. Then the volunteer chooses who from that group they would like to meet to see if it’s a match. Once a volunteer is matched with a friend then they can hang out together as much or as little as they wish. Although the minimum expectation for a volunteer is 3 hours a month.

However, I learned that many volunteers talked on the phone with their friend a few times a week and they saw each other a few times a month, which is much more than the minimum requirement. This was because being a friend was fulfilling not just for the friend but also for the volunteer. A heart-warming comment by one friend was that her volunteer “keeps an eye on me and makes suggestions if I have a problem.” This reminded me of the “tribe” that we have slowly lost over millennia and was covered in Loneliness Part One.

Unfortunately, I could not find anything like the Befriending Scheme in the United States. As I continued to dig deeper and look for other innovative ideas to connect people and end loneliness it is notable that many of the groups and innovations I found are outside of the US and seemed to be concentrated in the United Kingdom. Other than the Befriending Scheme, I found various other ideas such as a national lunch day where people are encouraged to have lunch with their neighbors, a mens’ woodworking shop, a community shared-responsibility hen house, various co-housing ideas, such as organizations pairing mutually beneficial roommate situations, or individual dorm houses where residents come together in a common area for socialization, and dorm-community meetings. Many, but not all, of these ideas around ending loneliness are aimed at the elderly.

I was stunned to find how much research is going on in the United Kingdom to proactively battle loneliness. Other than the Befriending Scheme (which, mentioned previously, is not just for elderly but also the disabled), there were two other major organizations: The Campaign to End Loneliness, and Age UK. Both groups are actively involved in finding ways to end loneliness, particularly in the elderly. I haven’t written much about loneliness and the elderly in this series. I will feature issues facing the elderly in an upcoming series.

“Tomorrow I am taking out [a friend]. A 91-year-old woman. She is a former concert pianist and very interesting to talk to,” from Gloria, a younger senior citizen dealing with her own loneliness.

While we don’t have a Befriending Scheme and other organizations focused on reducing loneliness in the United States are hard to find, there are other options. Obviously, if you’re finding yourself having a hard time with loneliness and you feel as if you have tried several ideas to solve it without success, it might be time to consult a therapist. I found Kelly Smyth-Dent LSW in my search for a therapist who helps lonely people. When I met with her and shared my findings about the Befriending Scheme she explained a global program which she has been creating and is about to launch.

Smyth-Dent is creating a Wellness Academy that contains six online modules to help the client understand themselves better. It covers topics such as understanding yourself, self-talk, emotional intelligence, challenging yourself, boundaries, communication, support systems, and vulnerability. The modules come with online support materials that can be printed such as checklists, worksheets, and other activities. Increasing understanding in these areas are helpful in combating loneliness and other common challenges.

“There are two things that can really teach us reality in our peculiar county ‘America.’ One: If you are stupid you are already DEAD. Two: if you are lonely you might as well be DEAD.” Charlie’s words about the hopelessness of being lonely.

Smyth-Dent acknowledges people can benefit greatly from seeing a therapist, but that a therapist is one person who is typically seen one hour a week. However, one hour a week might not meet the needs of everyone. And, to help many people, one person at a time is not entirely efficient. This is another reason Smyth-Dent created the Wellness Academy. To create a group-setting for socialization and interactive feedback, she has incorporated live social aspects into the program. This will connect participants through real group meetings rather than them only spending time behind a computer screen.

Smyth-Dent calls people who are on the path of self-improvement and challenging themselves “growers.” She has found throughout her practice that growers have a hard time finding each other, although they often wish to. The Wellness Academy features a private Facebook page. Since most people have their names on their Facebook profiles they might be afraid to post. However, if there is a person who would like to comment or ask a question anonymously of the group they can write to Smyth-Dent or the group facilitator privately and she will post their question.

“Most important is the recognition of how I have isolated myself.” Gloria

Social media has a reputation of isolating people through an illusion of connecting them. A while back I read a study that showed how social media and text messages did not light up socializing parts of the brain in the same way a phone call does. Human contact through a phone call or meeting in person is more effective in eliminating loneliness. I mentioned this to Smyth-Dent as she shared about her Wellness Academy. She explained this is why the program is more than just online. The program is being launched globally but there are local Peer Support Groups which will meet on a regular basis and will be facilitated by Smyth-Dent herself or one of her staff members. Creating this live, in-person contact provides feedback, and socialization. It creates a safe place for participants to meet other growers and practice new concepts toward improvement.

One-on-one wellness coaching sessions will be still available but cost an additional fee. The overall Wellness Academy program is set up to create a mental health support system that is more affordable than one-on-one counseling. Having a group of growers to meet with on a regular basis, who are also working on the same series of modules, creates the connections that are much needed with people who are going through difficult times and trying to understand new methods of handling their situations.

“I do wish for companionship. I’ve accepted the notion that I will find people whom I can trust, but only if I look really hard for them.” Edward

In my research it is apparent that the United States is behind the United Kingdom in innovative ideas about how to handle mental health and loneliness. It is exciting to see Smyth-Dent’s innovative program here in the United States in its infancy, with a global intention. I’m particularly drawn to the social aspect of the Wellness Academy after having researched the loneliness topic for the last month.

In the United States mental health programs are being cut even as we see mental health issues grow. Loneliness is a mental health issue that if we cannot find innovative ways to solve, will create more suffering in our country. We can take some cues from the research that is happening in the United Kingdom and implement some of the programs from there or, like Smyth-Dent has done, create our own unique programs that can reach more people and therefore heal more hearts.

“I really thought I might be the only one [be]cause it seems like no one wants to admit they get [lonely] and because most people are so afraid of anything slightly outside their realm of conventional acceptability.” Charlie

For more information on Kelly Smyth-Dent LSW and her program please go to

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