The end-of-year holiday season is always a difficult time for people left isolated as families and friends gather to celebrate.
But this was the year of the coronavirus and loneliness has been a feature of life for months.
One report published in the summer found nearly three times as many people reported feelings of loneliness compared to 2019.
Experts across Europe say the necessary focus on maintaining our physical health has come at the expense of mental health.
“We always talk about the transmission of the virus, but loneliness is also a public health problem,” Pedro Gullón, an epidemiologist, told the Spanish news website el Diaro.
For Sonia Lippke, a psychology professor at Jacobs University in the northwest German city of Bremen, the term “social distancing” itself is a particular nuisance.
She says it carries connotations of loneliness that can be particularly difficult for isolated people.
“We just have to distance ourselves spatially, not socially,” she told the broadcaster ZDF, adding that even a passer-by’s friendly wave through a window can help.
“It can change a lot when someone realises that he is being noticed.”
Not just the elderly
Social distancing rules have meant many older people — at greater risk of suffering severe health effects — spent the entire year physically separated from grandchildren and neighbours.
But loneliness affects younger people too and, one German survey suggested, they find it much harder than older people to cope with it.
A regular study by the German Centre for Age Issues (DZA) found that older people were finding it much less difficult to deal with COVID-19 restrictions.
They were also more adaptable to the principle of staying at home with drastically reduced social contact, the survey found.
Klaus Berger, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Münster in western Germany, says this was because older people have more experience and are “not so easily frightened, having learned to deal with illnesses and crises.”
Plan your time
Psychologists say it is important that everyone, young and old, takes care of their mental health by being aware of what is good for them and setting aside time to actually enjoy themselves.
Good food, fresh air in the outdoors, settling down to rewatch a favourite film — all can be as effective as social contact over Zoom.
But psychologists encourage any possible kind of social contact over the holiday period and to check in with those who might be alone.
Charities and governments around Europe have schemes in operation to support those experiencing loneliness over the festive period.
In the Italian region of Umbria, for example, local authorities are offering a Christmas lunch delivery service to elderly people who are forced to spend December 25 by themselves.
In Germany, TelefonSeelsorge operates 104 anonymous call centres across the country staffed by volunteers ready to discuss problems in any phase of life.
And a charity in the east London district of Tower Hamlets is arranging for locals to befriend older residents for a telephone conversation over the Christmas period.
Several European charities are offering support to people feeling loneliness during the festive period, including:
Spain:Age Concern España
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