Facing up to loneliness

Over the last few years there have been numerous cases of individuals reporting feelings of loneliness across the UK and discussing the issue more widely. These experiences, both temporary and chronic, have become an important public health concern with media reports talking of a ‘loneliness epidemic’. But what can be done to halt this expansion?

Loneliness is a common human emotion and exists to regulate behaviour, to tell you that social connection is lacking and prompt you to take action. It does however become disruptive when there is something preventing you from taking action, or significant obstacles stand in the way of doing so.

Professor Manuela Barreto, Head of Psychology and Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, has been researching factors affecting loneliness in order to develop policy and support tools for people to manage any negative feelings.

Manuela said: “When we think of the concept of loneliness, we are often guilty of focussing solely or mainly on the elderly generations; however, there is no age limit on experiencing loneliness. In fact, adolescence or young adulthood can be a peak time for loneliness as it is often a time of relationship change and a change in the basis of who you are/your identity.

“It’s often hard for people to realise that they are experiencing loneliness as it can involve a variety of emotions such as sadness, longing or fear, and so they don’t always recognise the symptoms or identify with the word. Also sometimes people can feel there’s a stigma associated with identifying as lonely and so they’re reluctant to do so.

“I was recently involved in a nationwide survey, carried out in collaboration with the BBC and colleagues from Manchester and Brunel, of more than 55,000 people called ‘The Loneliness Experiment’ and the results of that showed that 16-24 year olds experience loneliness more often and more intensely than any other age group. As well as facing significant changes in their lives, this group often have more ‘online only’ friends which can lead to additional barriers to making changes.”

Analysis from a further study has also found that for half of those aged 75 and over, being lonely was sometimes or always a positive experience, but it was less so for younger people.

Connected to this is a new project at the university’s Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health. Co-ordinated by Dr Fred Cooper, and involving Professor Mark Jackson (History), Professor Manuela Barreto (Psychology), and Dr Charlotte Jones (also from the Wellcome Centre). The ‘Loneliness and Community’ project is engaging with students about their experiences in order to understand not just how and why they feel lonely, but also how universities can improve their sense of belonging.

Fred said: “When students come to university, they are often in a state of flux and can feel isolated, both socially and geographically, from their existing support systems. Chronic loneliness can lead to poor sleep, health problems, depression and other mental health issues, so we want to minimise the chances of it becoming a problem early on.”

Fred’s study is also comparing the findings with a previous crisis of connection in the 1940s to 60s – a period in which loneliness was discussed in strikingly similar terms.

Loneliness isn’t necessarily connected to the number of relationships a person has, but their quality, the support network available, and how secure people

feel in sharing emotions.

“It’s not just about simply bringing people together or reducing the time they are alone.” Manuela said. “And equally encouraging individuals to ‘just’ do something, or go out, is a simple fix, which doesn’t relate to the complexities of the issue, wider structural causes or individual needs.

“We need to ensure that support services are visible and easily accessible, so if people realise they have a problem they can reach out for help. But we also need to focus on everyday environments where we may have created barriers to relationship building or quality human interaction.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to loneliness. There are a myriad of causes including stress, bereavement or major life changes, plus some groups such as care givers, minority groups or remote workers, can be more susceptible to social isolation, which is an important risk factor for loneliness. That means we need to look at specific regions and population groups to see what will be most effective in different situations. For example, teenagers might be unlikely to visit an ‘official’ school or college help service because of how they feel that will look, but prefer peer-to-peer support or an outside, anonymous service.”

Tackling loneliness requires society-wide change. In 2018 the UK Government released its Loneliness Strategy in response to increasing issues, and this report

requires action from government, local authorities, businesses and the voluntary sector.

At a local level The Wellcome Centre’s Fred Cooper and Charlotte Jones have just set up the Exeter Loneliness Network which brings together University

of Exeter staff and scholars across disciplines, as well as partners, individuals, and communities from beyond the university, to discuss shared interests in loneliness, and related ideas and challenges.

The network offers members the opportunity to find collaborators, work through common problems and share their ideas.

Loneliness has a personal cost both in terms of mental wellbeing and social inclusion, but also a financial one. Research has found that disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year. By implementing effective policy solutions and working together to create a more

socially connected society, we can start to reverse this trend.