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Loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic

As part of Loneliness Awareness Week 2021, Clinical Advisor Dr Fiona Pienaar explores the links between loneliness and other mental health issues as seen in the Shout 85258 dataset.

The topic of loneliness continues to attract increasing attention, particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and specifically since countries introduced periods of lockdown and people were forced to socially isolate. As an indication of the sheer scale of the issue, a quick Google Scholar search uncovers just under 30,000 academic articles since the start of 2020 using the search term ‘loneliness’.

Loneliness has been described as both ‘affective (emotional) and cognitive (your thoughts and reasoning) discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary’ (APA Dictionary of Psychology). Loneliness has also been described in terms of ‘social loneliness (a lack of a social network and the absence of a circle of people that allows an individual to develop a sense of belonging, of company, of being part of a community), and emotional loneliness (the absence of an attachment figure; together with feelings of isolation)’ (Yanguas, et al., 2018).

The term ‘loneliness’, particularly during periods of lockdown, is frequently used at the same time as discussion about ‘social isolation’ and certainly the two can go hand-in-hand. However, we also know that we can be physically alone and not feel alone or isolated and we can feel isolated at the same time as being in the company of others, confirming that we do not have to be alone, to feel lonely.

Loneliness is a ‘multidimensional and complex construct’ (Yanguas, et al., 2018) that we are all likely to experience to some degree at some point in our lives. It is also, however, an experience that, left unsupported, can impact on our physical and mental health.

How the Shout 85258 text service has been supporting people with loneliness

During the past 18 months of the pandemic, Shout Volunteers and Supervising Clinicians have supported thousands of texters reaching out because they are lonely. Separated from family, friends and colleagues; restricted in their movements, changing work environments and (at times) all but confined to their homes – Covid-19, and the associated lockdowns, meant sudden and significant changes in the way people lived their lives.

While some saw lockdown as an opportunity to pause, reflect, connect and even embrace new skills, this was certainly not the case for everyone. For many, the isolation associated with lockdown left them feeling lonely, vulnerable and fearful; separated from crucial support networks, at a time when they were needed most.

Interestingly, one study has proposed that because loneliness involves us comparing ourselves socially with others, it’s quite possible that the shared experience of lockdown during the pandemic may have mitigated the potentially damaging effects of isolation (Loades, et al., 2020) - based, perhaps, on an ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude.

But, even as the UK has returned to increased freedom, many have been left with lasting concerns about the future – for themselves, their families, and the world as they knew it – which may be proving difficult to shake.

What can we learn about loneliness from Shout 85258’s data?

Loneliness and isolation are one of the top five presenting issues that texters want to discuss when they reach out to the Shout text service for support. Sometimes they may name these issues themselves. On other occasions, the volunteers, through their training and experience and the supportive clinical supervision they receive on the platform, will identify that a person is feeling lonely and isolated and encourage them to talk about it. Importantly, knowing how critical it is for our mental health to feel connected to people who will support us in our lives, we help texters think about their connections and who they can reach out to when they feel lonely or isolated. Shout 24/7 is a service that is always there when people feel they don’t have the support they need.

Loneliness is strongly associated with the top four presenting issues including suicide, depression, anxiety/stress and relationship issues

On average 17% of all Shout texters mention loneliness and isolation in their conversations, but feeling lonely and isolated is also strongly associated with the top four presenting issues - suicide (34% of conversations that mention suicide also mention loneliness), depression/sadness (50%), anxiety/stress, and relationship issues (41%). Depression and loneliness seem to co-occur more commonly than loneliness does with other presenting issues.

Some interesting statistics from the Shout data:

In a recently published study that used the dataset from the BBC Loneliness Experiment, with over 46,000 participants from 237 countries (aged 16-99) to explore the effects of age, gender and cultural differences on loneliness (Barreto, et al,. 2021) the following insight emerged: