Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK was already experiencing what had been described as an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness. The various lockdowns and social restrictions that were put in place to reduce the spread of the virus have exacerbated this already troubling situation.
Indeed, according to recent research by the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) have felt lonely some, or all of the time, over the previous month; and 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) felt ashamed about being lonely.
With the huge impact this can have on mental health, it’s no surprise the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was loneliness.
In its new report, “All the lonely people”, published as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation explores the clear links between loneliness and mental health, looking at what it’s like to be lonely, the causes, consequences and the groups of people who are more likely to experience severe and enduring loneliness.
All the lonely people
Through sharing the stories of nine individuals who often or always feel lonely, “All the lonely people” highlights the circumstances, situations and life events that can increase our risk of loneliness. It also investigates how well people understand loneliness and suggests ways that we can respond as individuals and across society.
While it is acknowledged that anyone can feel lonely, there are a number of risk factors that can increase the chances of severe and lasting loneliness that can impact mental health:
- Being widowed
- Being single
- Being unemployed
- Living alone
- Having a long-term health condition or disability
- Living in rented accommodation
- Being between 16 and 24 years old
- Being a carer
- Being from an ethnic minority community
- Being LGBTQ+
The health and financial impact of loneliness
Loneliness can have a huge impact on health, life expectancy and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. Moreover, it has also been found to be more harmful than obesity. Not only does this have implications for individuals but also for wider society and the economy.
Recent government research estimated that the wellbeing, health and work productivity cost associated with severe loneliness (feeling lonely “often” or “always”) on individuals was around £9,900 per afflicted person per year. Other research has estimated that loneliness costs UK employers between £2.2 and £3.7 billion a year and that an estimated £1,700 per person (2015 values) could be saved over 10 years if action could be taken to reduce loneliness.
Given the significant health impacts and associated costs, the Mental Health Foundation report argues that preventing the development of loneliness should be a key priority and that a greater awareness of the risk factors and triggers needs to be created.
Public understanding but stigma remains
In terms of public understanding, the report asserts that the public has a good understanding of the link between loneliness and mental health. However, there is still significant stigma surrounding loneliness. Of the adults surveyed, 76% thought ‘people often feel ashamed or embarrassed about feeling lonely’. Only 29% of respondents agreed that ‘people who feel lonely are likely to talk about it, if they get the opportunity’. And people who experience loneliness themselves were more likely to recognise this sense of shame.
This stigma makes it difficult for people to talk about due to fears of discrimination or prejudice. Stereotypes about loneliness also still persist which can lead to some lonely people being overlooked. The findings show that despite the public’s understanding, there is a tendency to overlook certain at risk groups such as students, carers and LGBTQ+ people. People also tend to overestimate the link between loneliness and ageing or living in rural areas.
The survey found that people tended to believe that older people were more likely to feel lonely than younger age groups – 63% thought that being older (over 65) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely, whereas only 12% of respondents identified that being younger (aged 16-25) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely. This contradicts recent ONS data, which found that there were higher rates of reported loneliness among younger age groups.
Similarly, people tended to believe people living in rural areas would be more likely to experience loneliness (40% of people thought that living in a rural area could contribute to loneliness, compared to just 23% for living in a city). However, once again, the evidence suggests the opposite, with people living in urban areas reporting higher levels of loneliness than those in rural areas.
The report notes that stereotypes such as these can inhibit people from recognising and responding to their own loneliness, further exacerbate existing stigma and potentially limit the support offered to those who feel lonely.
The report argues that a wider understanding of the factors that can lead to severe and enduring loneliness is needed to successfully combat the stigma and stereotypes associated with loneliness.
The stories of the individuals who experience loneliness demonstrate just how complex it is and how difficult it is to spot those who may be ‘lonely in a crowd’. It is therefore also important to understand the different barriers to connection for different people. These can be practical (lack of time, access to transport), structural (discrimination or prejudice) or emotional (lack of confidence, anxiety).
The report argues that a broader awareness of these factors could help people to stop blaming themselves for being lonely, encourage creative ways of supporting people and enable tailored support being developed for groups who are particularly at risk of long-term loneliness.
Previous research has also highlighted the importance of tailored approaches and developing approaches that avoid stigma.
While highlighting what individuals can do to help combat loneliness, the Mental Health Foundation also highlights the need for action on the different barriers to connection if it is be tackled long-term. To this end, it has identified five UK-wide policy recommendations to address loneliness in society:
- taking a strategic approach to loneliness;
- developing the community resources needed to tackle loneliness;
- building a greener lived environment that supports social contact;
- supporting children and young people with interventions in education settings;
- ensuring that everyone has access to digital communication technology, and the skills to use it, and respecting preferences for non-digital forms of communication.
Each of us can play a part too. By sharing stories of loneliness and shining a spotlight on the issue, we can all help to promote wider awareness and break the stigma of loneliness.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like:
- ‘Digital prescribing’ – could tech provide the solution to loneliness in older people?
- More than growing pains: young people and mental health
- Virtual reality: a game changer for mental health treatment?
Follow us on Twitter to find out which topic are interesting our research team