How do I notice that somebody is lonely?


Bettina Bendiner




Loneliness is not an illness, but it can make you ill. We should not let it get this far. How we can notice that our loved ones, colleagues or friends are lonely even when in the company of others, and how we can support them.

Just because a colleague chooses to eat lunch alone does not mean they are lonely. And the friend who holes up in front of the TV on a rainy weekend does not necessarily have any deep-seated issues either. Sometimes people simply like to be alone and take time out for themselves. There's no problem with that, because being alone does not automatically equal loneliness. But where does the difference lie? What are the signs that a Sunday Netflix session is not just about relaxation but social withdrawal? After all, 17% of the Swiss citizens who responded to a recent study by the Migros Magazine stated that they felt lonely «very often» or «often» recently. This is a sad state of affairs. «You don't see loneliness in people. Yes, those affected may even conceal it as they perceive it to be a flaw» said developmental psychologist Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello. Many people would be ashamed of this and would keep this uncomfortable feeling to themselves. 

You don't see loneliness in people. Yes, those affected may even conceal it as they perceive it to be a flaw.

Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello, Developmental psychologist

How do I notice that somebody is lonely?

Loneliness manifests itself without any clear set of symptoms. But there are indicators that show somebody is not just taking time to themselves. Social withdrawal for instance. This can be seen in a friend who no longer answers the phone, or even if they do, only responds briefly and then resorts to text messages. Depression, irritability, and self-pity are also feelings that should make us sit up and take notice according to Perrig-Chiello. «However, it is more effective to take risk factors into account in order to detect loneliness,» added Perrig-Chiello. 

Who's especially at risk?

«It has been scientifically proven that very young people and people over 80 years of age are much more at risk of feeling lonely,» said the expert. Women and people with a migrant background are also at greater risk. Additional factors are a low level of education, living in a single household as well as health problems, either your own or those around you. Critical life events such as bereavement or divorce can also trigger a sense of loneliness. 

How do I approach somebody I suspect is lonely?

If we have a runny nose, we know what to do. We grab a tissue, drink some tea and rest. We all recognise the symptoms of a cold, but loneliness is not so easy to diagnose. «Loneliness can make you ill, but it's not an illness per se.» explained Perrig-Chiello. «Ideally, we should approach people we suspect of suffering loneliness in as relaxed and casual a manner as possible,» advised the expert. It's important to show you value them and not to appear condescending. «We should never overburden potentially lonely people with offers of assistance. This can reinforce the feeling that there is something wrong with them.» The best approach is to casually strike up a conversation, chat about everyday topics, and gently try to steer the conversation towards issues relating to loneliness. 


Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello is a professor emerita of Psychology, focussing on lifetime developmental psychology, at the University of Bern. She is the President of the Swiss Silbernetz association, which is committed to combatting loneliness and social isolation.


How can I help a lonely person?

«An invitation to lunch can be a good start,» said Perrig-Chiello. Bringing along a few other people – lonely or not – can also be a good idea. And why not offer elderly neighbours some support? Letterboxes don't empty themselves and even the smallest of errands can have a big impact. «Speak about the neighbourhood and local goings-on. Tell them about cultural events, clubs, courses or voluntary work,» advised the psychologist. «But it's very important that we motivate those affected to be proactive themselves!»

How can anyone be lonely with the wide range of things on offer in the modern world?

There are many reasons. Nowadays, people are much more mobile than any time before. We move to other cities or countries for work or study and leave friends and family behind. As we have probably all sensed, it's more difficult to build a network of friends once we reach adulthood. And a weekly call and chat with friends and family back home is not always enough. Another factor is that more and more people are single and live alone. And interestingly, loneliness can be the downside of our own striving for individuality. «In general, we establish more casual relationships with people nowadays,» added Perrig-Chiello. 

Photo/stage: GettyImages