The aim of this study was to explore the subjective experiences of loneliness by some psychiatric patients. The subjective lived experiences of research participants were examined in a qualitative research design that was considered most suitable to uncover the essences and meanings of the experience of loneliness. The particular phenomenological method used was Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). IPA is concerned with how experience presents itself in consciousness and follows a hermeneutic approach to meaning. Six participants from a psychiatric hospital context were selected by purposive sampling. In-depth interviews were used to collect the data.
Meaning units were indentified and grouped according to patricipants. Thereafter essential themes were identified to which existential phenomenological lenses were applied. The lenses were the life-world existentials of spatiality, temporality, corporeality, relationality and spirituality as well as four dimensions of existence namely the eigenwelt, mitwelt, umwelt and überwelt.
The study found that the way in which some spaces were experienced might invoke feelings of loneliness as well as comfort feelings of loneliness. The experience of loneliness had an effect on felt and lived space and vice versa. The situatedness of loneliness in time influenced the nature or quality of the experience of loneliness. Loneliness was also experienced through the body in both psychical symptoms such as anxiety and physical pain as well as physical sensations in the body. The body was the means through which people related to one another, being a physical relation through which loneliness was both felt and overcome. In the life-world existential of relationality, the lack of meaningful relationships was associated with feelings of loneliness. Being with people did not neccesarily alleviate loneliness but the quality of that connection could lessen feelings of loneliness.
In the life-world existential of spirituality the experience of loneliness was impacted on by a sense of spiritual identity, faith, hope and love in relating to the greater world or universe. To engage in creative activities, finding a spiritual connectedness to the world, and through relating to God or a higher power, paraticipants could feel less lonely and more integrated in their lived world experience.
In the existential dimension of the eigenwelt loneliness presented as a personal experience that called on the individual to take a self-reflective stance towards their loneliness experience. A tension was revealed between the need to connect and the need to be alone. Loneliness was often seen as resulting from a lack of connectedness between the self and the other. In the umwelt the perception of the environment and one‟s engagement with the environment significantly affected the quality of the loneliness experience. In the überwelt some participants saw loneliness as a meaningful journey. Seeing the meaning that underpin events could ease feelings of loneliness. Religion or spirituality was experienced as a binding force but it could also contribute to feelings of loneliness. Some participants felt that fate brought about loneliness.
The present study provided an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon of loneliness with a specific sensitivity to the psychiatric context. The nature of the data seemed to be unsaturable,
suggesting much depth to and variety in the loneliness experience. This suggests further that the loneliness experience may be an example of phenomenon for which saturation of data can not be obtained, which is in defiance of the usual aim for saturation of data in qualitative research. Future studies need to examine this aspect upon which qualitative methodologists have reflected relatively little so far.
The findings of this study are constrained by the specific context and the population being male participants of a Afrikaans-speaking socio-cultural background. This homogeneity may also be considered as a strength of the study, augmented by a similar language and cultural background of the researcher. A further strength was that the researcher, being a clinical psychologist could deploy developed skills in listening, eliciting personal responses, containing emotionally sensitive revelations, and for understanding inter alia unspoken interactions and emotions that are inevitable in an in-depth interview.
This present study contributes to our understanding of the complex phenomenon of loneliness, illustrating the multidimensional and intricate nature thereof, the value of adopting an existential phenomenological approach and the richness this approach affords. It revealed sharing of themes as well as diverse and rich meanings expressed in experiences of loneliness.