[WATCH] 21st century problems: Solitude and loneliness

Solitude seems to be a problem on the rise – bewildering to say the least, considering we live in a society which seems to be more connected than ever before and one of the most densely populated countries in the world

A staggering 3,000 people of the 9,000 who called the support line 179 last year did so because they wanted someone to listen to them
A staggering 3,000 people of the 9,000 who called the support line 179 last year did so because they wanted someone to listen to them
Solitude and loneliness in the 21st century

The power of listening is a known quality to journalism: hearing people out can be empowering to those who feel the urge to speak out.

But for many, solitude represents a daily feeling of loss that almost sounds unheard of in the 21st century reality of connectedness.

Indeed, a parliamentary question tabled last October on callers to the 179 national support hotline revealed that out of 9,000 callers, a staggering 3,000 wanted someone to “listen to them” – a marked increase over the 10% of calls made in 2016 identified loneliness as the main reason for calling.

Solitude seems to be a problem on the rise – bewildering to say the least, considering we live in a society which seems to be more connected than ever before and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. But it is a reality that contrasts with the perception of Malta as a close-knit community where extended family ties matter, and where religious notions of charity should promote a communal lifestyle.

Charmaine Attard, the director of care at Naxxar’s Hilltop Gardens retirement village, is one such sufferer whose life story features in a documentary produced by the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Wellbeing, called ‘The scourge of solitude: the journey towards a solution’, in collaboration with Caritas Malta.  

The documentary kick-starts a campaign to promote a better understanding of the afflictin of solitude and loneliness in Malta and to propose solutions that can inform social policy.   

“Creating awareness on this issue is a good place to start,” says faculty dean Andrew Azzopardi. “The problem of solitude has been a dormant issue… the ‘me, me, me’ mentality seems to be dominating our lifestyles, perpetuating a mentality where we do not seem to notice people falling by the wayside, as clearly shown in this documentary.”  

Attard says she started experiencing solitude after a bout of depression prompted by a particular life circumstance. “Despite being surrounded by very caring family members and close friends, I would feel isolated and alone,” Attard recalled.

She described solitude as a “personal ghetto” where one feels on the outskirts of society, where no matter what she did, nothing could make her feel better.

“Simply getting out of bed was a struggle. Depression and solitude left me with a lack of motivation to face everyday life. I remember my husband having to force me to get out of bed in the morning. I would wake up exhausted and have no energy to go to work,” she said.
Solitude and a lack of mental health care take their toll on the affected individuals, but also on their families. “At one point my condition was so severe that I would be sitting at the table, and tears would be rolling down my face for no apparent reason. My son once came to me and asked me when I would stop crying,” she said.

Attard recognized her family’s efforts and despite her suffering, sympathised with those who supported her through the struggle. “My husband lived with me through the pain, and I could recognize the frustration in his eyes. It’s not easy living with someone experiencing solitude and depression,” she said.  

But Attard said that in helping someone experiencing solitude and mental health problems, the reassurance that someone is there to listen can go a long way. “People who sat next to me saying nothing and offering their shoulder to cry on, would help me more than people who tried to offer me solutions to what I was dealing with,” she said.  

All a patient needs is a guarantee that people are not giving up on you, according to Attard.  

A year ago, Attard started making good progress in her journey towards recovery. “When the medication against depression started working, loneliness started to wear off and I started to slowly improve,” she said. “I still suffer from temporary relapses, which is a common occurrence among people who had previously suffered from depression.”

Andrew Azzopardi says Malta needs a proper social policy strategy which understands and takes the issue forward, as according to him the country is not equipped to handle solitude.  

“We need to keep in mind that this isn’t simply an issue of being surrounded with people; there is more to it and we need to understand the correlations between the sentiment and emotions that are felt by the affected individual, with the psychological and social conditions that trigger such emotions.”

More in National