Loneliness & Mental Health: Talk to Strangers. It’s Therapeutic!

This would be a long article but I promise I won’t bore you with redundant information. Before I make my point, here’s two bitter sweet stories of loneliness and how talking to random strangers helped.

Two Stories

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The first story dates back to 2010. I was a fresh graduate, severely hit by recession, trying to find a job. I was a good student with decent CGPA and  numerous projects and internships in my kitty. But months of struggle, series of rejections, dearth of money and loneliness had broke my back. Belonging from a small town, building my own life in a big city was no less than a dream come true. And I was just a step away- a huge leap away to be precise. I heard of an opening in a big buying house through a friend and applied. I got through the preliminary rounds and made it to the final interview with the company owner. While I was waiting for her, my heart was dancing with joy to think of a bright future. But it was short lived. After taking a short look at the resume, the company owner asked me few questions for which I had some perfect answers. At one point, she got frustrated, stopped, gave a cold look to me and said, “You are so good at bookish knowledge but when it comes to survival in this harsh city, you would perish. I would suggest you go back to your place and find something there.”

I was dumbfounded. It could have been a stress interview or she was really serious. I never got to know that. All I could see were my doubts about fitting in standing face to face. I am from a conservative family who never stepped out of home alone or even with friends before moving to Delhi. Each day in the city  was a fight for survival- a nerd taking up a fashion course, an introvert trying to make new friends, a fully dependent girl trying to do everything on her own. And after four years of hard work, I realized I still doubted myself. While I was suffering from inside, I made a brave face, very courteously thanked her for her time, stood up and left the room not before I firmly declared, “I would not quit trying.”

But perhaps quitting was a good option. I could have found a job with local coaching centers that would have paid me handsome salary or I could have simply prepared for MBA entrance exams. There were numerous opportunities and only one thing to lose- my self confidence. I was so busy in my thoughts that I could not see a man following me, requesting me to stop. He was the VP of the company who was also present in the interview panel. He offered me an apology on behalf of the owner. It hardly did any good to me but what he said next kept me going for a long time. He said, “I really liked your attitude of not giving up. No matter what happens, don’t give up. You would get through this.” We never met again. I don’t know his name but his words stayed with me through adversities.

The second story is freshly baked and a shorter one. Last week I was in the changing room of my gym. Though I was totally engrossed in selecting a playlist on my mobile, I could hear someone whimpering. Must be the locker room incharge, I thought. I remembered her as a very young girl I always found talking on phone in her native language. She always looked bored and disinterested and it was obvious why. She had long shifts of 10-12 hours where her job was to sit in a corner and make sure no one was stealing. She was instructed not to speak to anyone until necessary. Imagine how lonely it is- to be in a room full of people who don’t even acknowledge your existence.

In my super busy life, gym is the only place where I get some me-time. I can leave myself on auto-pilot mode, enjoy music and do some great workout on the machine. I don’t speak to anyone and I don’t care what others are doing so that there is no scope of social anxiety. And I am sure, this is the case with other people as well. One day I met an old friend in the gym and it got me annoyed instead of making me happy. My sacrosanct me-time was violated it seemed. Hence, based on this experience, I decided to leave the girl alone. When I came back after an hour, I found her sitting on the floor, in a corner, wrapped in a shawl like a cocoon. Bangalore is cool but never that cold. None of my business! But, maybe I could help. I couldn’t stop myself and I had to ask her- “Are you alright?”

She was clearly in pain but my question lit up her face. She didn’t say this but her smile said, “Thank you for asking.” She told me she had viral fever for over a week. I asked her if she visited any doctor. She told me all about her appointments, her medicines and how her colleague was down with fever too. She seemed frustrated over her failing health and was contemplating leaving job and moving back to her place. “I thought I would earn some good money here but this place doesn’t accept me”, she said. For some reasons, I remembered the time when I thought of giving up. I sat there for another half an hour narrating her stories of how my friends and I contracted cold and fever during our first month in Bangalore. I suggested her few home remedies. She shared stories about her home and relatives and spicy gossips from her family. I wished her speedy recovery and left.

It was the most satisfying workout session for me even though I spent the next week down with cold and flu. After a week when I visited the gym again, she was there back to her healthier self. She noticed that I missed a week and asked if I was ok. She told me that my home remedies were helpful and she decided to give it one more shot before deciding to move back to her hometown in Assam.

And these are not stories. These are facts as well. India is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness– mass migration from smaller towns to metro cities for higher education and better job opportunities, long working hours, breaking of families into smaller nuclear ones, dip in number of women working outside home, lack of spaces for community participation, lack of social touch points due to apps for grocery shopping, delivery etc . There are plethora of reasons why our generation is suffering.

Loneliness and Depression

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In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari has termed loneliness as one of the causes for depression and other mental health issues. He mentioned a research which found out that a lonely person has a very high level of cortisol, the stress hormone, as high as during a physical attack. Not only this, a lonely person is more likely to attract mental as well as physical ailments. Being lonely here doesn’t refer to absence of physical bodies, it means absence of emotional exchange. There was another research in USA where people were asked how many close friends they have. Within a span of few decades the average number went from three to zero. The situation in Indian cities is not much better than this.

According to National Mental Health Survey 2015-16, it was estimated that about 15% Indians were suffering from mental health issues and one in every 20 Indians was depressed. And yet we only have 898 psychologists against a requirement of 20,250. Sure, awareness and acceptance is an issue. The social stigma that accompanies mental health issues is too big to fight for many people who suffer in silence. But even for people who have identified the issue, fought with themselves and others and are ready to share, there aren’t many options. Unfortunately, in a country which is a boiling pot for innovative apps and startups, there are only handful of them that are able to stay afloat successfully. The problem is three-fold here- lack of awareness, stigma surrounding diagnosis and dearth of solutions.

The Friendship Bench

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As mentioned in a report by The Ken, online solutions in the form of AI-driven self help apps do solve the problems of social stigma and support gap but how effective are these in sharing the patient’s pain is questionable. This reminds me of a beautiful story from Zimbabwe I read a few months back. Zimbabwe’s mental health situation was grimmer than India with only 12 psychiatrists in a country of 16 million. Things changed when Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist along with his team came up with the idea of empowering grandmothers to provide talk therapy to the needy. The project called “The Friendship Bench” became a huge success and helped about 30,000 people in 2017 only.

You might wonder what is it that worked for The Friendship Bench? Were there any trained psychologists with professional degrees involved? There was a little bit of training but there was no professional involved. There was no Western science of therapy involved. Most of these grandmothers were illiterate. What it involved was- empathy, human connection, patience and love. The grandmothers who came from the same community used local concepts, language and emotions to talk to people suffering from various issues like poverty, heartbreak, loneliness, physical and mental ailments till they felt better or found a solution.

And that’s how easy it is- taking the first step towards making someone’s day better. The man on the day of my interview did. I tried returning the favor to the universe on the day I spoke to the girl in the gym. And there,  a chain reaction started. A pair of ears and a few sweet words are all it takes to make the world a beautiful place.

A startup that encourages you to donate your time at your convenience

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Remember we talked about how online apps help take away the concern about the stigma around mental health? Also, how talking to strangers sometimes help people open up without being concerned about judgement? Well, there is a startup that has come up with a concept that includes the best of both. Moodcafe, a mental health startup provides a safe space (online) to express emotions and feel better.

According to a survey carried out by Moodcafe,

  • Anonymity and confidentiality were some major concerns for people while considering counselling.
  • Fear of judgement is one of the major constraints while reaching out for help.

Moodcafe has an anonymous chat platform that enables users to share their emotions and feelings with trained listeners. Anyone can become a listener with a little training that would facilitate them in understanding the sharer’s situation and help them out to get a solution.

In my opinion, given the current scenario, this is the best opportunity for people to come closer to their emotions. It sounds difficult to achieve but it’s not. Imagine two friends sitting across a table. One is a sharer, the other is a listener, for a while and then it goes vice-verse. Moodcafe does the same for you sans the fear of judgement and loss of confidentiality.

Someday I hope, the loneliness would be cured and we all will live together as a happy family. Society would not be a judge but a healer. People would not meet loneliness but adventure in faraway lands. Till that time, you and I have some promises to be made and some favors to return.

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