3.7 million adults in Great Britain said they felt lonely often or sometimes between October 2020 and February 2021, the Office for National Statistics reports, which represents a marked increase on the year before1. But despite rising levels of loneliness among adults and how common these feelings are to many people, and the serious impacts it can have on people’s health, loneliness remains one of the more undiscussed elements of mental health. With many more people experiencing persistent loneliness as a result of the pandemic, the UK is also facing a so-called ‘loneliness epidemic’.
As we approach Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year is taking place between 9th and 15th May, it’s a good time as healthcare professionals to start thinking about whether you, your patients or your colleagues are experiencing loneliness, what the common signs are and what you can do to help.
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, 45% of adults in England feel lonely sometimes2. And whilst these feelings aren’t uncommon, the pandemic has left many more people feeling much more lonely than normal.
Loneliness and social exclusion have long been highlighted as a particularly acute mental health problem for adults over 50. Even before the pandemic, around half a million older people were going for at least five or six days without seeing or speaking to anyone. And this is a problem only set to grow further. The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to rise to at least two million by 2025 – a 49% increase in only 10 years2.
But whilst loneliness continues to affect elderly and excluded adults, the pandemic has also left many young people experiencing loneliness too. Young people, many of whom had left home for the first time to work or study, were hit hard by lockdowns and lost important sources of physical contact. A 2021 study by Harvard research group Making Caring Common, showed that 61% of 18–25-year-olds reported far higher levels of loneliness than other age demographics3.
Experiencing prolonged feelings of loneliness doesn’t just impact your mental health – it can have a measurable impact on your physical health too. Research suggests that loneliness, living alone and having poor social connections have the same impact on physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes, and some studies show that it can be worse for your physical health than obesity. Loneliness has even been linked to increasing an individual’s risk of death by 26%, so it’s clear that loneliness is one of the most pressing health issues for health authorities and healthcare professionals alike2.
How to recognise and address the signs of loneliness
Loneliness can affect people at any age and can be caused by a wide range of different factors. One of the common misconceptions of loneliness is that people need to be physically alone to experience these feelings. Whilst it is true for many socially excluded people to experience loneliness, even people normally surrounded by social connections can still feel lonely. Many people may still feel alone when they are in a relationship or whilst spending time with friends and family. Other people experience loneliness when planning for big life events, such as buying a house, having a baby or getting married. It’s important to remember that feeling lonely isn’t the same as being physically alone.
With this in mind, it’s important to recognise the common causes and symptoms of loneliness. Many people feel alone due to their personal circumstances or identity, and could be:
- experiencing a bereavement
- moving to a new location
- starting a new job
- experiencing gender, ethnic or sexual discrimination
- recovering from trauma or a post-traumatic episode
- excluded from social activities due to mobility or financial problems
- a single parent or could have caring obligations that make maintaining regular social contact more difficult4
There are many reasons why people may experience loneliness and this means that the symptoms can manifest in many different ways. Whilst each person will likely experience different symptoms, some of the more common signs of loneliness include:
- the inability to connect with people at a deeper level
- no close or ‘best’ friends
- overwhelming feelings of isolation, regardless of where someone is and who is with them
- negative feelings and frequent self-doubt
- feeling rejected when trying to reach out to other people
- exhaustion and burn-out when trying to engage socially
Recognising the signs of loneliness is key to helping put in place effective measures to attempt to alleviate these feelings. As often a common point of contact for many people, healthcare professionals are well placed to recognise signs of loneliness. Each person will have different needs, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping people feel less lonely. For example, nurses or homecare workers should always bear in mind the possibility that a patient, service user or colleague is feeling lonely, but as the Royal College of Nursing suggests, sometimes asking somebody directly how they are feeling, or how often they feel lonely, can be the best way to discover someone’s true feelings.
When it comes to speaking about loneliness, mental health charity Mind recommends encouraging simple steps that can help someone to feel better connected to others. These steps include:
- taking it slow and not pushing beyond what is comfortable
- making new connections
- seeking out peer support through helplines or charities
- opening up more often to people they trust
- talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), that can help people understand why they feel lonely
- avoiding unhelpful comparisons to other people
- prioritising wellbeing by getting more sleep or improving dietary choices5
Alleviating loneliness together
Learning to recognise the signs and causes of loneliness as a healthcare professional can have a positive effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of patients and colleagues. For more wellbeing support, consult Medacs’ wellbeing resources, or to find a job as a mental health nurse, search and apply for the right opportunities for you.
1. Office for National Statistics. 2021. Mapping loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic. [Online]. [April 2022]. Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/mappinglonelinessduringthecoronaviruspandemic/2021-04-07
2. Campaign to End Loneliness. c2022. The facts on loneliness. [Online]. [April 2022]. Available from: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness
3. Colleen Walsh. 2021. Young adults hardest hit by loneliness during pandemic. [Online]. [April 2022]. Available from: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/02/young-adults-teens-loneliness-mental-health-coronavirus-covid-pandemic/
4. Mind. 2019. About Loneliness. [Online]. [April 2022]. Available from: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/
5. Mind. 2019. Tips to Manage Loneliness. [Online]. [April 2022]. Available from: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/tips-to-manage-loneliness/