Loneliness is something that many people will experience from time to time and is part of the human experience. Defined as ‘a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship’, loneliness is not the same as social isolation and people can feel lonely even if they have a lot of social contact.
Persistent loneliness is increasingly being considered one of the most pressing public health issues, due to its association with serious physical and mental health issues and even early death. Loneliness has featured more prominently on the government’s agenda since 2018 and has become more prominent in public discussion since the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week it is Loneliness Awareness Week, aiming to reduce the stigma of loneliness and encourage people to talk more openly about it. Loneliness was also the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, pointing towards the link between mental health and loneliness.
New research by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has found people experiencing chronic loneliness to be nearly four times more likely than people without chronic loneliness to be in mental distress.
In order to better understand the relationship between mental health and loneliness, NatCen, on behalf of DCMS, conducted a diary study and in-depth interviews with people who were experiencing loneliness and who also had a history of mental health conditions.
Loneliness and poor mental health: a cyclical and bi-directional relationship
We found that people described a cyclical and bi-directional relationship between their mental health and loneliness. Mental health issues could reduce people’s capacity for social interaction. For example, low mood could lead to social withdrawal or feeling disconnected from others and mental health conditions could simply make people feel too exhausted to engage with others. Public spaces for socialising could also feel overwhelming.
Beyond this, people described not being able to share with others how low they were really feeling because they feared being a ‘downer’. This led to people feeling lonely and disconnected even when they were with others. Trying to maintain a pretence of being fine around others was exhausting and unsustainable and led to them withdrawing from social contact instead.
On the other hand, loneliness was also found to lead to a decline in mental health. This happened when participants had more time alone to ruminate on negative thoughts and where they lost confidence in their ability to socialise, leading to low self-esteem. This was particularly pronounced since COVID-19 lockdowns, when people felt they had lost the habit of socialising. This deterioration in mental health could then lead to further social withdrawal, with participants entering a cycle of increased loneliness and poor mental health.
The finding that the relationship between mental health and loneliness is bi-directional and cyclical suggests that targeted interventions could actually have a twofold outcome in both reducing loneliness and improving mental wellbeing.
Our report sets out recommendations for what the voluntary and community sector could do to tackle loneliness - but what can individuals who are experiencing loneliness do themselves? Participants in our study discussed the activities they did to help them feel less lonely and more connected with others. These included:
- Interacting with people online. A range of online platforms were used and said to be effective in alleviating feelings of loneliness, such as social media groups and apps specific for parents.
- Joining groups, clubs and activities in line with people’s interests. Examples included: University of the Third Age, arts and crafts groups, book clubs, sports groups and volunteering.
- Spending time with people from existing relationships, such as friends, family and loved ones.
- Seeking help for mental health issues, including medication, talking therapies and self-management. Alleviating symptoms of mental health issues can make it easier for some people to socialise and connect with others.
Although it can be hard to take the first step in trying to reduce how lonely we feel, people who had proactively sought out connections with others felt good about doing so. Similarly, reaching out to people who we think may be struggling or feeling lonely can truly impact their life in a positive way.
There are many things we can do to connect with each other and feel a little less lonely. The Loneliness Awareness Week and Every Mind Matters websites have additional ideas of ways to connect with ourselves and with others.
The full findings of this qualitative research and related quantitative research conducted by NatCen and commissioned by DCMS can be viewed on our website:
UK Government policy paper: A connected society: A Strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change
Previous research exploring experiences of loneliness in adults with mental health issues