Navigating loneliness research now it’s on our doorstep

McPin Research Director Vanessa Pinfold looks at research past and present to inform how we might address the increasingly vital issue of loneliness

Vanessa Pinfold

The Covid-19 pandemic has bought loneliness to our doorstep. I think many more people have become aware of the ‘loneliness problem’ through the past year, be that personally feeling lonely or awareness of the people around you suffering.

One direct result of this is that I now know more of my neighbours through setting up a WhatsApp group on our street during the last year.

This was partly driven by a sense that there were a lot of people at risk of loneliness because they lived by themselves and maybe we could connect and help each other; not that loneliness is all about social contact – you can live with people and feel alone, stranded in an emotional space of emptiness as well as a physical one. 

Personally, I feel connectivity to my street has been a positive from this extremely difficult year and most people joined it – with clear parameters set on use! It quickly became clear that for a WhatsApp group to be a useful and positive space it needed clear rules.

Loneliness in McPin’s work

At McPin, loneliness is a theme threading through a lot of our work. We are part of the loneliness and social isolation network at UCL, which has brought people together across the UK interested in researching loneliness.

We joined because we know how important meaningful activity and social connections are, both through our personal wellbeing networks study, and broader conversations with people affected by mental health issues.

There is increasing interest in this topic, both pre and post pandemic, spanning from the young to old age: check out these resources for more information.

A few years ago, we were part of the study developing a ‘new’ intervention for addressing loneliness among adults with chronic depression and anxiety.

By that we meant people who had lived with complex mental health problems and were supported by secondary mental health services that specialised in depression and anxiety; people’s whose health problems were disabling in many respects, including when it came to making social connections.

It was called the Community Navigator study and was funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR).

The project co-developed a ‘Community Navigator’ role to input across the NHS, if proved useful. It brought together people with experience of loneliness, depression and anxiety, practitioners working in mental health services, and academics and has resulted in several research papers.

Loneliness among adults

First, we scoped what else was out there for addressing loneliness among adults and wrote up a review of what we found (Mann et al (2017) A life less lonely).

This review uncovered social prescribing work and psychology-based groups that were heavily tied to the medical model. Our lived experience advisors were keen to develop something different; an approach that was social, not medical, in value-base and philosophy, built upon the understanding of loneliness as felt by mental health experts by experience.

We then wrote up the results of our development work and small feasibility study, which showed the Community Navigator approach had promise; people mostly liked it and it was feasible to deliver (Lloyd-Evans et al 2020 Feasibility Trial).

This also helped us secure funding for part two of this work – a full Randomised Control Trial which will start in Autumn 2021, again funded by the NIHR. The aim of this second project is to see if the Community Navigator role is ‘effective’ and could be rolled out across the UK.

Things that helped and things that hindered

The paper I enjoyed working on most was our qualitive piece, co-produced with members of the entire team, including practitioners and experts by experience. We looked at the accounts of 19 people who worked with Community Navigators to address their feelings of loneliness.

We surfaced things that helped and hindered the relationship, which was valued as different from traditional mental health supports or family relationships (Frerichs et al 2020 Influences on participation).

As Leah moved on to describe her experiences of the Community Navigator programme, the tone of her narrative changed to one of optimism and energy, and it is clear that her relationship with the Community Navigator was at the heart of this. In an animated voice, with upbeat music playing in her home, she explained how she got on with her Community Navigator from the start, forming a close relationship that was “almost like a friendship”.

Extract from paper (page 6)

People made progress small and large. They acknowledged how hard it is to address feelings of loneliness but found that having a friendly professional person to support them was a bonus.

We are also working with young people to look at how loneliness impacts them, and the role of screen time including social media use as a help and hinderance.

Looking at the social issues of loneliness

I am personally wary of too heavy a focus on loneliness as a health problem. If it is to be treated as a health issue, the likely solutions must address social issues as well as medical ones. For example, what are the social determinants of loneliness? I think a new research project might be brewing!

Get I touch if you are interested in helping us progress this, we’d love to hear from you.

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Vanessa Pinfold is Research Director at McPin