SOME 21 years ago, the Mental Health Foundation started annually hosting a specific week as 'Mental Health Awareness Week', with the aim of giving important attention to, and offering support to, the rising number of young people and adults struggling with their mental health.

This year, the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘Loneliness’ – a particularly pertinent theme considering the widely-recognised impact of social disconnection and isolation linked to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Alarmingly, the Mental Health Foundation reports that loneliness levels are now almost three times that of pre-pandemic levels, affecting all age groups.

We can all feel lonely at times, but when it is a chronic or long-term feeling, it can have serious effects on our mental health.

Considering the significance of the pandemic, it is important to understand that feeling lonely is a very common occurrence.

Normalising this experience is essential in removing any feelings of guilt or shame.

We are all inherently social beings, and missing out on social interactions affects our wellbeing. There is also widespread recognition that, as a population, we are suffering 'pandemic fatigue'.

Many of us are feeling a real sense of exhaustion after months of spending time and energy dealing with a new pandemic lifestyle, and all the struggles it’s brought.

It’s okay to be feeling 'flat', worn out, tired or deflated, given the strain of what we’ve all been facing. It’s a normal response to extraordinary times.

Sometimes, when we are feeling lonely, we forget that we have people we can turn to, or that we can make new connections.

It is very easy when we experience intense emotions to allow these to interfere with our more balanced thinking.

We may feel that we are a ‘burden’ to other people, that ‘they are too busy’, or that we have nothing interesting to talk to anyone about any more.

Just because we are thinking like this, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Strong emotions can interfere with our thought processes and distort our view of reality. So many good people out there would be delighted to engage with you, and they get too get the ‘feel-good ‘hormones that come from connecting, so it is a ‘win-win ’situation.

Remember you are cared for, so reach out to family, friends or to the many support services that want to help.

Connect Fermanagh is a fabulous organisation doing some sterling work locally to support those who are lonely.

It is a telephone befriending service comprising volunteers who want to reach out and give support to those who may be feeling lonely or isolated in the Fermanagh area.

Further details on getting support for yourself, a family member, neighbour or friend are available from the phoneline at 028 66320320, or at

Anyone feeling lonely can sign up for a weekly call to chat with a volunteer, or they can try volunteering themselves. It’s a great way to meet new people, and to learn new skills.

Other top tips to combat loneliness include having a good routine and structure to your day to helps focus the mind and reduce feelings of anxiety.

Try to get enough sleep and some physical exercise to boost your feel-good hormones. Getting out in nature and paying extra attention to your lovely surroundings can help you feel less lonely and more connected to the world around you.

Distracting yourself – such as by reading, gardening, DIY work, playing games and so on – can help settle and calm an anxious mind.

However, be very mindful that taking alcohol to combat anxiety and loneliness can lead to dependency, and have a detrimental impact on your mood, leaving you less able to cope with the feelings of loneliness that are driving this behaviour in the first place.

Speaking to a counsellor can also help deal with feelings of loneliness. For some people, loneliness is not just linked to changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, but is rooted in family conflict, former pain, grief and/or trauma. Talking to a counsellor in a safe space can help process these painful feelings.

I would encourage anyone who is struggling with loneliness to reach out for supportive connections in the community.

It is a tremendous act of self-care to open up and talk about your feelings with another person, and doing so can make such a positive impact on your wellbeing moving forward.

It’s okay not to be okay, and it’s okay to ask for help.

This Opinion piece was by Shauna Cathcart, a person-centred, integrative counsellor based in Enniskillen. She is accredited with The British Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Shauna is keen to get the message out that there are people out there to help tackle loneliness with you, and it's okay not to feel okay.