London, England – It took Shuchi Sharma Bhatnaga months to realise that what she was experiencing was loneliness.
She had moved to London in April 2018, after her husband was offered a job. They decided to take the opportunity to live abroad, and left their home in New Delhi, India – and the huge network of family and friends they had there.
The first month passed in a flurry of getting settled and finding somewhere to live.
After that, Bhatnaga signed up for dance classes and other activities to meet people. But she found herself feeling flat.
“I’d do a salsa class twice a week and really have a lot of fun, then I would come back and suddenly feel that overwhelming feeling again, like ‘what do I do, who do I talk to’?” she recalls.
In recent years, there has been a spotlight on loneliness; figures published by the Office for National Statistics last year showed that 2.4 million adult British residents of all ages suffer from chronic loneliness.
Research has highlighted the medical dangers, leading some to suggest that loneliness in the United Kingdom is of epidemic proportions.
The research shows that people's ethnicity directly has an impact on their experience of loneliness.
But until now, little research has been done into how loneliness specifically affects people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.
Barriers to Belonging is a new report exploring experiences of loneliness among BAME people, commissioned by the Co-op and the British Red Cross.
Based on a survey of almost 1,000 people as well as focus groups and interviews, the research shows that people from BAME backgrounds may be more vulnerable to loneliness and face greater barriers in accessing help to overcome it.
“The research shows that people’s ethnicity directly has an impact on their experience of loneliness,” says Paul Amadi, British Red Cross chief supporter officer.
“One of the key findings was that people from BAME backgrounds are more at risk from the factors that cause loneliness. Those factors include not feeling you belong to a community, if you feel you aren’t going to be welcome, or you’ve been excluded, or have experienced discrimination.”
One of its findings is that 67 percent of respondents who said they felt they didn’t belong in their community were always or often lonely, compared with just 16 percent who felt they did belong.
This was true for Bhatnaga: she found herself longing not only for the people she had left behind in New Delhi but for the different social codes. In India, it had felt easier to strike up new friendships. “It’s cultural,” she says. “Here in London, I felt people are very busy and they take their time to get familiar.”
The report does not distinguish between recent immigrants, like Bhatnaga, and people from BAME backgrounds who have grown up in the UK; Amadi says that more research is needed.
But it appears that some of the risk factors are the same.
“There could be language barriers – or it could be people from within Britain leaving their community behind,” says Ruwaida Adam Mohammed, cochair of the Co-op’s Rise group, a diversity initiative.
Another clear driver for loneliness among BAME people is discrimination.
Suhayla Ibrahim is British and has a big network of family and friends in London.
However, when she experienced workplace discrimination – both racial and gender-based – this year, she felt isolated. “Not everyone gets it,” she says. “My parents are from Sudan, and they have had a very different experience to me – my mum has never worked, and my dad has also had a completely contrasting experience. My friends are multicultural so they have a different experience too.”
Ibrahim, the only woman of colour on her team, was demoted without explanation. She questioned herself. “I almost felt crazy,” she recalls. “I just got crammed into this corner, and it was extremely lonely.”
Her mental wellbeing deteriorated, culminating in her being signed off work with stress until the end of her contract.
Barriers to Belonging shows that almost half of people (49 percent) who experienced discrimination at work or in their local neighbourhood reported being always or often lonely, compared with just over a quarter (28 percent) of people who hadn’t.
The turning point came when she decided to leave the job, and shared her experiences on a Facebook group offering support for BAME people.
“It was really great when I was able to share my story and people responded, saying they’d been through similar,” she says. “I suddenly didn’t feel alone”.
I'm from the Somali community - we have big families, so you think you will never be alone. It's almost like you can't talk about loneliness. I think a lot of people are suffering in silence.
Although, for Ibrahim, removing herself from the toxic work environment helped her overcome her loneliness, she points out that not everyone has the means to simply quit a job. And financial constraints can be severely limiting in more ways than one.
“Many BAME people [who responded to the survey] felt they didn’t even have the disposable income to participate in social events,” notes Amadi.
A further barrier to seeking help can be the stigma: Almost 60 percent of survey respondents, across ethnic groups, admitted they did not feel confident talking about loneliness, with a third more saying they would never admit to feeling lonely. Mohammed suggests that this could be more acute for some BAME people.
“It’s taboo,” she says. “I’m from the Somali community – we have big families, so you think you will never be alone. It’s almost like you can’t talk about loneliness. I think a lot of people are suffering in silence. There’s very little awareness about where you could go for help.”
For Bhatnaga, the turning point was recognising that she was lonely, despite making an effort to socialise. “I was meeting people, but I still felt lonely,” she says. “I was seeking those deeper connections which I had back home which I didn’t have here. It wasn’t enough for me to go out for a few hours, I wanted something more. Loneliness is not really about the number of people, the quantity, it’s the difference between your expected level of social interaction and where you are.”
She decided to look into volunteering, and last October, started working with the British Red Cross’s Connecting Communities programme, which seeks to ease loneliness. Supporting other people experiencing loneliness gave Bhatnaga an immediate sense of relief.
“I was uplifted,” she says.
Through the voluntary work and the connections she made both with service users and other volunteers, Bhatnaga feels her loneliness is behind her for now.
The next steps might involve further research into BAME people and loneliness, a so far neglected area. “There’s an increasing recognition of the importance of people feeling lonely, and there’s a government response there,” says Amadi.
“But there isn’t a recognition that actually, there’s a differential impact to loneliness. So that greater effort might potentially end up missing out on the people who are disproportionately at risk of being socially isolated.”