Rhianydd Crawshaw, a university student who felt lonely and felt better after volunteering at a British Red Cross book shop, smiles at the camera.

© Rhianydd Crawshaw

 

When Rhianydd, a 22-year-old student, experienced loneliness, she turned to volunteering for the British Red Cross to find friends and feel more connected. Now, she wants people in power to take this issue seriously.

I’ve always been an introverted person, and I really like my own space. But I also do really like talking and hanging out with people, I guess you could call me an “ambivert”.

During my first year at university, I couldn’t drink alcohol due to medication I was taking at the time, so I didn’t go out and I tended to avoid situations where heavy alcohol consumption would be present. And, during freshers week – that’s a lot!

I’m not saying that was the only reason I was lonely or struggled to make many friends at university, but it was definitely a contributing factor. This led to me spending most of my time alone locked up in my room not talking to anyone. I was miserable.

I broke down in the middle of class

My mental health deteriorated – I wasn’t eating properly, I wasn’t talking to anyone outside of my course. I eventually became so miserable and self-hating that I ended up breaking down in the middle of class, and my lecturer took me straight to the student services.

It got so bad, I stopped going to class because I really couldn’t get out of bed. At this point, I convinced myself that no one there cared about me and that I couldn’t talk to anyone.

I made the difficult decision to take a year out after my first year of university, to work on getting myself better. I was looking for work, to help support my mum who is on a low income, when I found myself in my local British Red Cross bookshop. The idea just came to me while I was in there: to give myself something to do and get some work experience, I wanted to volunteer.

Volunteering helped build my confidence

Rhianydd Crawshaw, who was feeling lonely, shelves books in a British Red Cross charity bookshop. Volunteering there helped her feel less lonely and improved her mental health.

©Gareth Iwan/British Red Cross

Since then I’ve been doing much better. Volunteering helped build my confidence, and I’m now one of the team, which feels great!

I loved it so much I was in there every day at some point. It’s just like a family there and a safe place to be. Everyone’s happy to have a chat and we can be a bit silly.

It brings a group of people who probably wouldn’t talk to each other in the outside world, but we’re all there to do the same thing and for the same cause. It didn’t matter where we came from, or why we volunteered.

When I’m volunteering I realise I’m doing something that’s bigger than me.

Back to university with a new focus

Those friendships gave me the confidence to go back to university. Now, I have some “rules” for myself that I try to follow, to make sure I don’t go back to my old behaviour.

I do slip up sometimes, and still have days when I feel low. I can’t say that I’m never lonely or sad, of course.

But I am in a better place than I was before and I want other people experiencing loneliness to get here.

Listen to young people about mental health

It’s time loneliness was taken seriously. If you’re lonely, it affects your mental health, and with poor mental health there’s a good chance you’ll feel isolated and lonely. The two are inextricably linked.

Tackling loneliness and improving mental health support are fundamental if you want people to feel more connected. This needs attention and money.

It’s time for the government to listen to young people in particular – we’re becoming more open about talking about mental health. To break down the stigma around loneliness, we need the government to listen and hear us loud and clear too.

There really isn’t enough information out there about where you can go to talk to someone, or even just have a chat over a cup of tea. This could also come from better education about combating loneliness in schools, and education about not feeling embarrassed to ask for help. And also for people not to judge others who are feeling this way.

I don’t want to hear the phrase ‘others have it worse than you’ or ‘just cheer up’ ever again.

Charities, like the British Red Cross, provide much needed help for people who can’t afford it or don’t know where else to turn to. But I’d like to see the government opening up conversations about loneliness, and put more funding into services.

Sometimes, the best thing someone can do is just listen. Don’t try and ‘fix’ that person, just be there and support.