Loneliness and Mental Health

In the last post we looked at the recent launch of a major government campaign ‘Let’s Talk Loneliness’, and the reasons why loneliness is such a big issue for us today, how it can affect anyone, and how many people experience loneliness. This time, we’d like to look a bit closer at how loneliness can affect our mental health, and what we can do about this.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that being alone, and being lonely are not the same thing. Some people enjoy their own company and prefer to be alone some, or all of the time. In fact, being alone and having time to reflect can have very positive mental health benefits. For those with busy lives, periods of peaceful solitude without the distraction of other people can help address mental health issues including anxiety and depression. Therapeutic approaches including Mindfulness and Meditation are often based on some degree of solitude.

Loneliness is different. It’s not just about being alone, but it is about the lack of meaningful connection or communication with other people. Ironically, some people experience acute loneliness when they are among crowds, or live in densely populated cities. Loneliness is linked to sadness and can be associated with feelings of abandonment, rejection or isolation. This in itself can trigger or contribute to mental health issues, such as depression, social anxiety and low self esteem. Often these issues will stop people taking action to socialise and reduce loneliness, leading to a ‘spiral’ effect where isolation and chronic loneliness can result. For example, loneliness can cause feelings of poor self-worth, which can make people socially anxious, which can in turn make it more difficult for people to escape loneliness. It’s also important to see that loneliness can be part of something else. For example, may elderly people suffer bereavement when a partner dies, and the loneliness that results is inextricably linked with their loss and bereavement.

As human beings we generally thrive and feel happiest when we feel part of a support group or family of some description. Feelings of belonging and the emotional and practical support we get from being part of such groups are generally seen as supportive of good physical and mental health, and there is an increasing body of evidence to support this. Various studies have shown that stress resulting from loneliness can contribute to lower immune resistance and poorer cardiovascular health for instance. This is in addition to mental health issues such as depression and social anxiety described above. And for older people, there is plenty of research linking loneliness with poorer physical and mental health. For example, there seems to be a clear link between loneliness and a raised risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

So what is loneliness for? Is there a reason why we sometimes experience feelings of loneliness?Well, there is a view that loneliness can be seen as a type of ‘social pain’ – a psychological mechanism which is meant to motivate people to seek closer contact with others. The problem arises where things such as low self esteem or depression get in the way of someone seeking that closer contact.

What can be done? Well the good news is that loneliness has now been recognised as a major issue, and awareness and support for those experiencing loneliness are better than they have ever been. The stigma of loneliness is being broken, and it is recognised that anyone can experience it. There are many local support organisations/ day centres and clubs designed to offer social opportunities for the elderly and isolated, along with befriending schemes. For those who cannot leave home, there are services such as ‘Silver Line’, launched by Esther Ranzen to offer support to isolated over 55s. And initiatives such as the ‘Big Lunch’ are helping to foster community level socialisation.

It’s also important to mention that therapy can be beneficial in breaking the cycle between loneliness and mental health issues. For example, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) techniques can be very effective in promoting positive change, where for example, depression or low self esteem and loneliness are reinforcing each other.