The COVID-19 pandemic isolated many people from friends and loved ones. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD, talks about cycling through chronic loneliness and distress and how it affects our mental health.
For many, the pandemic intensified loneliness concerns. A new research study conducted in the United Kingdom (UK) has found a direct link between the impacts of loneliness and greater mental health distress.
These findings can better inform government programs to address loneliness and improve mental health among adults.
Understanding the research
Researchers found that the interviews conducted for the study yielded four themes: what “lonely” means, contributing factors to ongoing loneliness, links between chronic loneliness and mental health, and strategies for reducing loneliness.
In particular, this study found that certain groups are more vulnerable to chronic loneliness, including disabled people and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Although this study included a somewhat diverse sample with people of various backgrounds, types of mental health issues, service use, and locations, the researchers note that the context of the pandemic may have influenced accounts of loneliness, and even more diversity in the sample would have been beneficial.
Howard Pratt, DO, says, “Loneliness and isolation can become a form of self-neglect. Just like we need self-care and time to ourselves, we also need to be engaging our community to have a sense of purpose.”
Social interaction is essential
Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says, “Mental health issues do have a significant impact on our social life, and can make it harder for someone to make true friendships.”
“This difficulty can lead to loneliness, which can lead to mental health issues. Human beings are social creatures and we are meant to be around other human beings,” he explains.
Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of mental illness, according to Lagoy. “When you are lonely and lack social interaction, you are more likely to become depressed,” he says.
Lagoy highlights, “There is stigma with loneliness and mental health in our society. To break this cycle, people can be more open with their illness, so those who are suffering realize that they are not alone.”
Social interaction is essential to flourishing, as Lagoy notes how a lack of it increases the risk of mental illness. “Loneliness and its relation to mental health have not been studied much; however, studies like this are showing how important both are and how they are both related,” he says.
Lagoy explains, “As was noted in the paper, limitations include not having a diverse enough sample of people; they did not look at variables such as sexual orientation or ethnicity. This is worth noting because sexual orientation and ethnicity do play a crucial part in mental health.”
People of certain cultures may be more at risk for loneliness compared to other cultures and ethnicities, according to Lagoy. “I would re-emphasize that we need to destigmatize loneliness and mental health,” he says.
While medications can help patients who are lonely, Lagoy notes that connection to others is needed.
“The sooner we recognize the problem, the sooner we can get real solutions. Unfortunately, in our society we do not talk about loneliness much; however, it is a major problem and medications alone are not going to solve it,” he says.
Early intervention is needed
David Merrill, MD, PhD, says, “The common core of different anxiety disorders is fear-based avoidance. If a person has one or more negative social experiences of perceived failure or embarrassment, this may lead them to decline future offers to connect.”
When ties are suddenly severed or dramatically altered by an event like retirement, Merrill notes this can trigger depressive symptoms like low mood, decreased energy, poor focus, and trouble sleeping.
Breaking the cycle of loneliness starts with an awareness of how important social connections are to mental health.
“If you are suffering with loneliness, start with reaching out to someone you trust,” says Amanda Logid, LMFT. “Feeling alone in the midst of mental health struggles is part of why it is so difficult. You are not alone, and you are valuable enough to seek and get help, and find your community.”
Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.
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