My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me

My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating

Sometimes, I wish someone out there will find me

‘Til then, I walk alone

Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Green Day

Do you know how hard it is to think of a decent song about loneliness?

It’s hard. There’s no shortage of brooding, Byronic songs about loneliness resulting from the loss of a romantic relationship, but when it comes to the creeping, insidious loneliness that can accumulate over time through social isolation, or when people feel lonely because they don’t feel sufficiently met in their existing relationships with family, friends, or work colleagues, the search becomes a lot more challenging…

What is loneliness?

Humans are tribal and social beings that are biologically programmed to need the physical presence of other humans. The need to feel safe among others, to belong, and to have a voice in a group is woven into our DNA and, in times gone by, this programming helped us stay alive.

While times have changed, and we no longer need others to watch out for us to prevent us from being eaten by large, sabre-toothed cats, our programming has not updated in such a way as to allow us to lead healthy lives of isolation. Thus, if our experience of being with other, like-minded individuals is taken away, we open the door to loneliness.

Loneliness has been defined as ‘a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship’ that ‘happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want’ (current HM Government definition adopted from Perlman and Peplau, 1981).

Therefore, we feel lonely when we deem our relationships and social networks to be lacking in some way – perhaps because we would like more of them, or because we would like them to be of higher quality.

In terms of the extent of loneliness amongst the general population, it is significant: even prior to the advent of COVID-19, research commissioned by the British Red Cross and the Co-op found that one in five people in the UK often or always felt lonely. Now, 41% of UK adults report feeling lonelier since lockdown, and we are at risk of a new ‘pandemic of loneliness’ stealthily filling the void of human contact that the virus has left behind.

Loneliness at the Bar

While often a source of great fulfilment, life at the Bar can also feel relentless and depleting. In the analysis of the responses to the recent survey of Barrister’s Working Lives, only 47% of respondents agreed that they ‘overall had good wellbeing as a barrister’. This is in keeping with the risk of loneliness from working at the Bar being higher than ever. This increase in risk is due to several factors, including greater numbers of people working from home, an increased number of remote hearings, and chambers consolidating and becoming larger and less collegiate. In addition, when people do go to court, they are often faced with long commutes, and they can find social engagement with colleagues difficult because they don’t live locally. Moreover, long working hours reduce time with family and friends, and working into the evening can make it hard to commit to social engagements. Such factors create prime field conditions for the silent and debilitating fog of loneliness to descend.

The impact of loneliness

Underestimate loneliness (literally) at your peril because, when people feel lonely most or all of the time, it can be life threatening. Frequently feeling lonely is linked to early death, and its health impact is thought to be on a par with other public health priorities like obesity and smoking. Loneliness is associated, inter alia, with an increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, an increased risk of depression, low self-esteem, sleep problems and an increased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. Feeling lonely can even make people more likely to perceive, expect and remember others’ behaviour to be unfriendly, increasing social anxiety and causing them to withdraw further, creating a vicious cycle.

What is being done and what needs to be done?

Some steps have been taken at a governmental level to seek to raise awareness and combat loneliness: in January 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May created a ministerial lead for loneliness (currently Nigel Huddleston MP). In October 2018, HM Government published its first loneliness strategy, which included a commitment that all GPs will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services by 2023 – the practice, known as ‘social prescribing’, allows GPs to connect patients to activities such as cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups, rather than defaulting to prescribing medication. Loneliness was the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and there is now a national Loneliness Awareness Week (LAW!), hosted by Marmalade Trust.

At a more micro-level, it is important that chambers capitalise on (and rejuvenate, if necessary) the traditional strong sense of camaraderie at the Bar by creating regular opportunities for social connection: sets can bring back chambers’ tea and arrange drinks, informal lunches/dinners, practice group meetings and practice group events. Sports and arts events (viewing and/or participating), gatherings and group walks can be organised. Buddy systems and mentoring systems can be implemented/proactively managed, so that pupils and tenants have consistent, regular, organised support. More generally, training in mental health first aid can be delivered, chambers can appoint wellbeing representatives as points of contact, and sets can subscribe to assistance programmes (APs) that provide wellbeing resources and offer counselling services. Wellbeing policies can be implemented/updated to include a commitment to combatting loneliness and set out the systems in place to achieve this.

Peer support

One effective way to tackle loneliness is peer support, where people use their own lived experiences to help others. Getting emotional support from people who have similar experiences can improve wellbeing, increase self-esteem and confidence, provide hope that we can move on from a difficult situation and help us manage it better.

LawCare (the mental wellbeing charity for the legal community) has a wealth of experienced support available (it’s important I declare my bias at the outset, as I’m a LawCare volunteer myself!). Because the charity is staffed by lawyers and ex-lawyers, volunteers understand the particular stresses and strains that people working in the legal industry have to contend with. The organisation has an excellent helpline that provides immediate (confidential) help and the space for people to talk through problems. LawCare can match you with a peer supporter of similar experience who can offer one-to-one support, friendship and mentoring over the telephone: (helpline: 0800 279 6888).

Further resources

The Wellbeing at the Bar portal contains a plethora of helpful resources and offers a confidential telephone assistance programme: (Assistance Programme tel no.: 0800 169 2040).

The British Red Cross has a support line for people who are lonely, worried, impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic and/or finding it difficult to access food or medication: (support line: 0808 196 3651).

The Campaign to End Loneliness has a podcast series on loneliness and other materials:

The Jo Cox Foundation runs the Connection Coalition, a UK-wide network of members that are working to address the disconnection, loneliness and social isolation in our communities.

Marmalade Trust provides a number of loneliness guides:

The Samaritans can be contacted for a confidential listening ear on tel no. 116 123 or by email at

As a final thought, there’s always the option of discussing things with your GP for further assistance and signposting, and to help you feel more in control of your situation.

Be kind to yourself, and I’ll see you in LAW