New research published this week found that lonely young adults were more likely to have other mental health problems, Dr Timothy Matthews wonders why ... 

Paradoxically, in a world that is more linked-up than ever, loneliness has reared its head as an issue of significant public concern.

Traditionally, loneliness has been the domain of art, literature, and music; however, scientists have taken a growing interest in loneliness in recent decades as the implications of social relationships for health have become clearer.

A 2015 review indicates that loneliness is associated with a 26% increase in risk for early mortality, placing it on a par with other well-known risk factors such as smoking and obesity. This has led to recognition of loneliness as a public health issue, to the extent that in January this year, the Prime Minister of the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle it at the policy level.

Loneliness is a distressing, painful feeling that arises from the perception that your connections with others fall short of what you’d hope them to be. It has more to do with the quality than the quantity of your social relationships. Living alone and having no one to talk to can lead to loneliness, but loneliness is not synonymous with social isolation, and a person can feel lonely even when surrounded by other people. The sense that others don’t understand you, that you don’t have anything in common, or that your relationships with them are meaningless or superficial, can make you feel alone even when not objectively alone.

Older people and loneliness 

Until recently, the public conversation on loneliness has focused mainly on older people. 

Adversities in late life, such as bereavement, illness and mobility problems, can make individuals lose valuable sources of companionship.

However, old age is not the only peak time for loneliness. We now know that it is just as common, if not more so, among younger adults.

A new survey by the ONS has revealed that the proportion of people who felt lonely “always or often” was higher among those aged 16-24 than any other age group. Experiencing loneliness temporarily once in a while is a normal part of life, but young people who become trapped in a more chronic form of loneliness could face increasing health problems as they age.

Why are young adults lonely?

So, what is going on in the lives of lonely young adults?

Our latest piece of research, published this week in Psychological Medicine, aimed to answer this question, in a cohort of more than 2,000 individuals born in the UK in the mid-90’s. When participants were aged 18, we interviewed them about feelings of loneliness, as well as their mental health, physical health, lifestyle habits, coping with stress, education and employment. We also have data on these individuals going all the way back to childhood, allowing us to look at their early experiences and circumstances. This enabled us to take an in-depth snapshot of the lives of lonely young adults.

Our findings show that loneliness goes hand-in-hand with difficulties across many different areas of life.

Lonely young adults were more likely to have mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, to have self-harmed or attempted suicide, and to have seen their GP or a counsellor for mental health problems in the past year.

Although the long-term physical health effects of chronic loneliness weren’t seen in this young sample, lonelier individuals were more likely to smoke, be less physically active, and to have poorer sleep quality, which could foreshadow problems with health in the future.

In addition, we found that lonelier young adults were more likely to be out of employment and education, and were less confident about their career prospects. They were no less committed to job-seeking than non-lonely individuals, but they were less optimistic about their ability to get ahead and succeed in their careers. Although they didn’t rate their technical and manual skills any lower – such as computer programming, plumbing, cooking or writing – they were less positive about their ‘soft skills’ such as communication, leadership and teamwork.

Screening for loneliness 

When looking at the childhood history of the study participants, adversities in the family home – such as witnessing domestic violence or having a parent with mental health problems – did not appear to predict loneliness in young adulthood. Instead, the childhood risk factor for loneliness included experiencing depression or anxiety, and being bullied or isolated by peers.

Furthermore, unlike many mental health-related risk factors, loneliness did not differ between male and female participants, nor across different socioeconomic strata. It can befall people from all types of backgrounds.

These data don’t allow us to draw conclusions about the causal direction of the associations, but they do demonstrate that loneliness cuts across many important domains of health and functioning.

If someone discloses to their GP, a friend or family member that they often feel lonely, this could signal that they are experiencing problems in other areas of life. The next step to take this research further will be to use longitudinal data on loneliness to study the direction of the associations. Is loneliness a risk factor for mental health problems, an outcome, or both?

Could loneliness be a force for downward social mobility, or is it simply the case that being unemployed makes people feel cut off from society?

How can society reduce loneliness? 

More broadly, is there anything we can do to reduce loneliness in society? There have been many initiatives rolled out by charities and local governments, geared towards organising events where people can get together, meet their neighbours and make new friends – The Great Get Together and The Big Lunch, for example. Many people have reported benefitting from these events, both in terms of reducing loneliness and improving general well-being. However, we should also bear in mind that some people can feel lonely even in the company of others.

Loneliness can form part of a negative, self-reinforcing pattern of thinking that can make it difficult to build positive connections with people.

A review of interventions indicates that lonely individuals can also benefit from therapeutic approaches geared towards tackling these negative thought patterns, so that they can get the best out of their interactions with others.