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Mental Health Awareness Week: All you need to know about loneliness

This year's Mental Health Awareness Week, spearheaded by the Mental Health Foundation, is highlighting the impact of loneliness on mental health. In this article, we look at loneliness in society, from what causes it, to how it's perceived by the public, to what still needs to change.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, loneliness is thought to affect 1 in 4 UK adults at any given time.

Although feeling lonely is a normal part of life, when it lasts for too long, it can negatively affect mental health. In fact, scientific studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between loneliness and specific mental health issues. In one study looking at White British people over the age of 50, for every one-point increase on a loneliness scale, average severity of depression increased by 16%. A year later, loneliness was linked with 18% of all cases of depression, and 11% cases of depression after 12 years.

Perhaps the biggest issue with loneliness though, according to the Foundation, is that it can trap people in a 'loneliness loop' – the more lonely a person is, the more likely they are to ruminate and worry, and the more likely a person is to become socially isolated.

What causes loneliness?

In the Mental Health Foundation's Loneliness Report, certain factors can increase the likelihood of someone experiencing long periods of loneliness that can in turn affect their mental health. These include relationship status, job, employment status, living arrangements, health status, age, ethnic background, and sexual orientation. Practical barriers to socialising, societal issues and psychological barriers can all play a part too.

The Mental Health Foundation provides three character profiles of those likely to experience loneliness:

  • Widowed, older homeowners living alone with a long-term condition –These people are commonly female, likely retired, better off financially than average, and living in the least deprived areas. 69% reported feeling lonely ‘occassionally’ or more often

  • Unmarried, middle-aged adults with a long-term condition – These people are commonly worse off financially, living in more deprived areas, not in paid work, and report their long-term condition or disability as limiting. 81% reported feeling lonely ‘occassionally’ or more often

  • Younger renters with little trust or sense of belonging in their area – These people are commonly in paid work, living as a couple, worse off financially, and living in deprived areas. 61% reported feeling lonely ‘occassionally’ or more often

Societal barriers are a particularly prominent risk factor for loneliness as seen during lockdown periods in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 1 in 20 people (5%) in Great Britain were lonely at the beginning of the pandemic, but this number rose to 7.2% by February 2021.

What is the public's understanding of loneliness?

According to the Foundation, the general public have a good understanding of how loneliness can impact mental health. In a survey of 6,000 people from across the country, the Foundation found that 86% of people understood the link between loneliness and mental health, while 65% thought 'loneliness is one of the most important factors in poor mental health.' Almost 3 in 4 (73%) also recognised that loneliness can still affect an individual with good mental health.

However, there are many risk factors for loneliness that are overlooked or misinterpreted by the public. One example is age where only 12% of respondents thought that being between the ages of 16 and 25 could contribute toward feeling lonely. In contrast, 63% thought that being over 65 would increase feelings of loneliness. As the Foundation points out, previous findings from the Office of National Statistics shows that show that younger people reported feeling lonely more often than older people.

A misperception also exists in terms of where people live. 40% of survey respondents thought that living in a rural area could contribute to loneliness, while only 23% thought that living in a city would have the same effect. Existing evidence suggests that people living in cities tend to more lonely than their rural counterparts.

Does a stigma exist around loneliness?

Unfortunately, a stigma does seem to exist around loneliness, or at least many people believe there is one.

In the Foundation's survey, 76% of people thought that those who felt lonely also felt embarrassed to talk about it. In contrast, only 29% of respondents thought that people who felt lonely were likely to talk about it.

What can I do if I feel lonely?

The Mental Health Foundation lists seven activities that could help address loneliness:

  • Try to do things that will keep your mind busy – Engage in something you enjoy

  • Try to engage in a physical activity – Even if it's something simple life going for a walk

  • Try to engage with people in your everyday life – Humans are sociable animals so building connections naturally gives us a lift (even if it's just a simple "hi")

  • Find people that 'get' you – Finding others who feel like you can be comforting, and may open the door to groups or solutions that could help

  • Spend time with pets – Interacting with pets has been shown to lower stress levels, while looking after them can provide activities that enhance your mood (e.g. taking them for a walk)

  • Try to use social media in a positive way – Find communities that share your interests, and try to avoid social media you know negatively affect your mental health

  • Explore talking therapies – Talking to a registered counsellor or therapist in a safe space can be particularly beneficial

How do I help someone else who I think could be lonely?

The Mental Health Foundation lists three tips for supporting someone who might be lonely:

  • Don't judge or stigmatise them – As we've seen, stigma can be a barrier for people who feel lonely to access help. Try to not judge and pin their loneliness on their mental health

  • Try to make groups welcoming to other people – If you are in a club or community, try to understand that loneliness can lead to people feeling shy and vice versa. Flexibility can help in these situations

  • Try to listen and show understanding – Be open to hearing what they have to say can help them feel understood, in turn helping them feel less lonely

How can I get involved in Mental Health Awareness Week?

Mental Health Awareness Week runs until 15th May, during which time there is ample opportunity to engage in the Mental Health Foundation's #IveBeenThere social media campaign.

You can also engage directly with the Foundation using its social media handles: @mentalhealth on Twitter, and @mentalhealthfoundation on Facebook and Instagram.

The Foundation has also created plenty of awareness materials, from posters to social media posts, to report and booklets. You can find them all on the Mental Health Foundation website here.

If you would like to learn more about the Foundation's Loneliness Report, you can read it in full here.


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