13th May 2022 Blog

Loneliness & Mental Health: How research can help find solutions

Loneliness • Wellbeing •

To mark the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, the McPin team explores the importance of research in investigating – and tackling – loneliness.

Vanessa Pinfold

We started doing research directly on loneliness at McPin back in 2017. It is something I have always felt was a vital topic affecting people across the course of their lives.

In particular we felt this was true of: young people developing their sense of identity, changing schools and dealing with relationships; older people concerned about changes in mobility and health, dealing with bereavement and changing relationships within families; adults managing stress and change in their lives including new parents, the homeless, people losing jobs and people with health difficulties.

Is loneliness a health problem or is it a social problem with health consequences?

I could also relate to loneliness and the idea of feeling lonely but not being physically alone (termed social isolation); being surrounded by people but feeling disconnected and very alone.

Questions I have previously posed include: is loneliness a health problem or is it a social problem with health consequences? Should it be ‘medicalized’ with treatment prescribed? When did loneliness move from being a very ordinary experience to a significant problem with long term adverse outcomes? How is loneliness different to, say, poor mental health including depression?

There was a lot of think about, and it was becoming a ‘hot’ research topic.

Building on existing research

As McPin moved into loneliness as an area of academic work, we found some of these questions were being considered, including measures of loneliness and how well suited they were for different groups of people, and the role of social prescribing as a health intervention.

The BBC did a nationwide ‘experiment’ in 2018 collecting narratives on loneliness from the public. There was also a funded network dedicated to research on mental health and loneliness based at UCL.

This all gave us a good baseline of evidence from which to start looking at the topic.

Wellbeing networks & mental health

In 2017 we had the opportunity to work on two projects that built on  Community Health Networks, which we carried out from 2011-2013, and developed an innovative approach to mapping people’s social worlds – including connections to people, places and activities, looking at how they interlink and how they impact wellbeing.

This resulted in the Hounslow Wellbeing Network being set up in west London, as well as the South London network mapping for physical health, a pilot study that aimed to support people diagnosed with a severe mental illness to improve their physical health using social connections.

Read about both on our website, and you can also watch a video from the Hounslow Wellbeing Network here.

Moving forward with solutions

As we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, which has focused on loneliness this year, it has been good to follow the conversations and contributions from people across the world.

In the last five years we’ve spent two of those living under the Covid-19 pandemic with restrictions on our movements in place. This has placed an even greater emphasis on loneliness and its consequences for poor mental health.

We don’t need research to tell us loneliness is problematic; that’s pretty obvious. However, research could help us with getting some of the solutions funded by local government or public health bodies.

Research could also help us understand the impacts on particular groups, and what might alleviate feelings of loneliness so we are better able to offer support and help prevent the negative mental and physical health consequences associated with loneliness.

Many community-based supports closed during the pandemic and have had funding cut.

Research priorities

In conversation with Georgia Naughton, a peer researcher on our team at McPin, we reflected on our priorities for research on loneliness. They are:

  • Better measurement of loneliness by age, gender and ethnicity. People experience loneliness in different ways and we need to know more about that so solutions better suit individual circumstances.
  • Using the current research evidence-base to influence commissioning decisions so that services and supports are available to those who feel lonely. There are lots of examples of projects addressing loneliness with supporting evaluations; we’ve looked at the Men’s Sheds online and community peer support groups, and Community Navigators programme, to name just a couple. Many community-based supports closed during the pandemic and have had funding cut, including libraries, after-school clubs, and social groups for varied age groups.
  • New research to better understand the impacts of the pandemic on loneliness, including the benefits and challenges of virtual connections.
  • To ensure research is inclusive of the people most marginalized and isolated in our communities, as we know isolation can be a compounding factor for loneliness.

No ‘one size fits all’ answer

Georgia  also emphasized to me how important a ‘no one size fits all’ approach is in regard to support focusing on reducing loneliness.

Current research reports that people experience loneliness differently based on age, as the causes of such loneliness are more often than not caused by different life events or factors.

This being said, a lot of the current research base and interventions focus on mainly two age groups: young people and older people.

Therefore, there is a lot less knowledge and support available for individuals outside of these age groups who are experiencing loneliness. This in itself may then cause further feelings of isolation.

It is also important that knowledge and support is accessible to people of all ages and experiences.

That’s why research focusing on individual experiences of loneliness, which considers varying protected characteristics, is essential to facilitate the wider use of personalized interventions for loneliness.

Making a difference in communities

We are currently working in collaboration with University College London to test a co-developed social intervention called the Community Navigators programme. The intervention aims to reduce loneliness and depression.

We were part of the developing team with research testing feasibility and acceptability. Now we are looking at effectiveness and implementation.

Research can be a long and complicating endeavour! Something that has helped our work researching loneliness is our partnerships with experts by experience.

We work side by side with people who have personal experiences of depression and loneliness, and this has been vital in shaping both our research processes and co-designing new strategies to test.

That includes this week – so big shout out to everyone who has shared their knowledge about mental health and loneliness, helping us and others drive forward the research agenda.

Community Navigators 2 is currently recruiting roles in York, Camden & Barnet. Find out more & apply today!