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Each month the Network produces a newsletter that is sent to all members of the network. We have also asked Network members to write blogs on our events and other events they have attended.

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Blogs by Network Members

Dr Vasiliki Tzouvara reflects on our June 2019 event

Understanding loneliness among people with mental health problems: What I took from the UKRI Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network workshop on 26th June 2019

Loneliness is a key societal and public health issue with adverse effects on one’s life. People with mental health problems are more vulnerable to experiencing loneliness due to the often complex and multidimensional nature/characteristics of their illnesses.

The UKRI Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network workshop on 26th June 2019, which I attended, aimed to bring together people from various backgrounds in order to discuss loneliness and social isolation in mental health research. The speakers discussed a broad range of perspectives including the historical and philosophical dimensions of loneliness (Dr Fay Bound Alberti and Valeria Motta), the contemporary issues on how we conceptualise and measure it (Dr Bryn Lloyd-Evans), the potential interrelationships between loneliness and self-stigma (Dr Bettina Friedrich), and the lived experiences of loneliness (two members of the network’s Co-Production Group, Stephen Lee and Kathleen Fraser).

The talks were followed by roundtable discussions on themes such as ‘is loneliness one thing?’ and ‘what do current measures of loneliness miss out?’, as well as providing opportunities for participants to give feedback on two ongoing pieces of research by network members: a meta-synthesis of qualitative data on the experience of depression and loneliness in young people (led by visiting student Louis Achterbergh, who also gave a talk), and an empirical study involving interviews and focus groups with people suffering mental distress on how they experience loneliness (led by network coordinators Mary Birken and Ellie Pearce). Every discussion offered a unique opportunity to explore the issues raised by the speakers in depth, however in this blog I will focus on four areas that particularly struck me: (1) the relationship between loneliness and mental health problems, (2) the relationship between self-stigma and loneliness, (3) the discussions about the lived experiences of loneliness from Network members, and (4) the key themes that emerged from group discussions. 

Why is there a close relationship between loneliness and mental health problems?

The event opened with a presentation by Network co-investigators Dr Bryn Evans-Lloyds and Professor Sonia Johnson around potential factors that explain the relationship between loneliness and mental health problems, and how we measure loneliness. It was noted that as the result of experiencing mental health problems, people can have difficulties creating and maintaining intimate relationships and close family ties, resulting in experiences of loneliness and social isolation.  One of the most important points, however, was made in relation to the role of loneliness itself. Mental health problems may be the result of loneliness and social isolation in the first place. Thus there seems to be a vicious cycle where loneliness and social isolation can be either the trigger or the outcome of experiencing mental health problems. The tricky thing is to try to disentangle this interplay in order to identify potentially modifiable risk factors that could form the basis of effective interventions.

Loneliness may also be a part of some mental health problems, for example depression (a point made by Louis Achterbergh in his talk on the experiences of young people in relation to depression and loneliness), while some symptoms/difficulties of mental health problems may directly contribute to loneliness and social isolation, for instance as a result of withdrawal linked to paranoia. It is therefore difficult to separate loneliness and social isolation from mental health symptomatology. However, during the discussions after the talks a concern was raised about pathologising loneliness, by seeing it solely as a mental health problem and/or a symptom of mental health problems.

Loneliness might be the result of psychological and social consequences relating to how people with mental health problems perceive themselves and their roles in the society, including whether they develop their social identity mostly focused on their illness while losing other key social roles.

Is there a potential relationship between loneliness and self-stigma?

People with mental health problems often become self-stigmatised by internalising negative views attached to their illness. Limited social connections due to becoming self-stigmatised leads to self-isolation and loneliness. This is what is known as the “why try” effect: a sense of futility due to one’s beliefs of being unable/unworthy of achieving personal goals linked to negative self-stereotyping.

Dr Bettina Friedrich discussed the potential interrelationships between self-stigma and loneliness and an intervention she has been involved with around football. Her work is very welcome because this area has been barely explored and needs much further investigation. My PhD research on this topic revealed that one’s “insight into their mental illness” is a key intermediary factor in the relationship between the self-stigma and loneliness. It is important to remember that not all people experiencing mental health problems have insight into their illness, which may protect them from becoming self-stigmatised, and therefore lonely and isolated. Further work to identify other factors involved in the association between self-stigma and loneliness, such as the role of societal stigma and discrimination, and the effect of the hypervigilence to threat cognitive bias linked to prolonged loneliness, is much needed.

Lived experiences perspective of loneliness

Two powerful talks were given by people experiencing loneliness and added a new dynamic into the event. Considering that loneliness and social isolation are highly stigmatised in our culture, with people often being unwilling to discuss these experiences, I think it is important to provide the space and time for people to express their own thoughts and feelings. On reflection, I only realise now the huge impact of these two discussions on my understanding of loneliness, and its complex and multidimensional nature.

Loneliness is a subjective, unique, intense experience, but other societal, psychological, and cultural factors also need to be added into the equation. Unfortunately, cultural differences in the conceptualisation of loneliness and social isolation and how this interacts with individual-level factors such as early childhood experiences and personality to influence an individual’s sense of loneliness and their mental health were not explicitly addressed as part of this workshop; this would be a fascinating area for the network to explore in the future. The impact of ethnicity, particularly for minorities, also seems to be an area that should be addressed in future discussions.

Group discussions: key points          

The workshop offered the space for ideas development and exchange through group discussions around key areas for loneliness and social isolation. A common theme emerging from roundtable discussions involved the need for longitudinal studies to identify predictors for loneliness and relationships to therapy, and intervention studies targeting specific groups of people, such as those experiencing different mental disorders due to the different thresholds used for assessing loneliness (a measure used in some groups might not be appropriate in others). There was also a call for studies exploring the role of technology and social media in experiences of loneliness among people with mental health problems. In addition, discussions highlighted that future research should explore how psycho-social-environmental factors influence and shape experiences of loneliness and social isolation, and stressed the important role of peer support interventions, which are a widely implemented intervention for alleviating loneliness among other populations. Finally, group discussions pointed out the need to explore loneliness among those who are “extremely isolated”, since they are more likely to refuse or be unable to take part in research studies.

Conclusions

We know that loneliness is as damaging to ourselves as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, while six out of 10 patients attend their GP services due to loneliness. Feeling connected, and a part of our community, are fundamental aspects of our identity as social human beings. Anything that jeopardises our abilities to fulfil these needs, including poor mental health, exposes us to loneliness and social isolation. This workshop not only offered a great opportunity for knowledge exchange about these issues between researchers from different disciplines, people with lived experience, practitioners, policy-makers and representatives of community organisations, but also built grounds for future discussions and collaborative investigation. We have only started to unravel the mechanisms and processes of loneliness in relation to mental health problems, and I am intrigued to see what the future entails.

About the author

Vasiliki Tzouvara is a Lecturer in Mental Health, Faculty for Nursing, Midwifery and Palliative Care, King’s College London. Her research expertise is in loneliness among people with mental health problems, the cross-cultural variations of loneliness, and the potential interrelationships between loneliness and self-stigma. The Network coordinators provided input to the blog.

Further reading

1. Corrigan, P.W. Larson, J.E. & Rüsch, N. (2009) Sel-stigma and the “why try” effect: impact on life goals and evidence-based practices. World Psychiatry, 8, 75-81

2. Tzouvara, V. (2016) Self-stigma, loneliness and culture among older people with mental health problems in nursing homes. Available on line: https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.681065

3. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B, Baker, M., Harris, T., Stephenson, D. (2015) Loneliness and socil isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Prespective Psychology Science, 10, 227-237.

4. Campell, D. (2017) Loneliness as bad for health as term illness, says GPs’ Chief. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/12/loneliness-as-bad-for-health-as-long-term-illness-says-gps-chief 

A member of the Network Co-Production Group reflects on our July 2019 event

Mapping the Pathways: Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health: A workshop for Network members, July 2019

As a member of the network's Co-Production Group (COG), I attended a workshop in London exploring the causal pathways between loneliness, social isolation, and mental health on 16th July 2019. The workshop was open to members and interested parties of the UKRI Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Network and as such, was looking to harness the interdisciplinary nature of people's interests, experience and expertise. Outputs from the meeting will be used to shape the core themes for future research.

The agenda looked mind-dazzlingly broad, both in terms of the big questions it tried to answer, and the diversity of perspectives, though it leant more towards biological, psychological and social factors related to loneliness, social isolation and mental health problems.

What do we already know?

Setting the scene for the day were network co-ordinators Mary Birken and Ellie Pearce, presenting their recent umbrella review of epidemiological findings exploring the relationships between loneliness, social isolation and mental health problems. This was a review of other published reviews within the topic area that aimed to bring all the existing research together and highlight what is known as well as areas for further exploration. I found this session particularly interesting, as epidemiology offers the opportunity to observe a phenomenon and factors influencing it over a longer period of time. To me, this seemed especially relevant in mapping the pathways between mental health, loneliness and social isolation given the chronicity of loneliness and isolation in many people. But longitudinal studies take time, and perhaps that's why there weren't an abundance of good quality studies included in the review.

Most of the reviews they found were of research conducted in people with depression, though studies of people with PTSD, anxiety, and psychosis were also included. One finding that stood out for me was that greater severity of depressive symptoms over time was predicted by loneliness, and that loneliness can impact on recovery. Was loneliness perhaps keeping people in a permanent, albeit fluctuating, depressive state? These links were also found in psychosis, anxiety, and PTSD, though some caution in these conclusions was advised given the variability in quality of the studies included, and the broad range of populations studied. Although the aim of the event was not to discuss interventions, these findings will certainly provide food for thought in the future work of the network.

Further discussion and commentary led by Louise Arsenault and James Kirkbride, and questions from the floor, highlighted how the reviews did not differentiate between social isolation and loneliness, and that scales to measure social isolation were lacking. This felt surprising given how loneliness and isolation are two distinct experiences, which though they are often linked, they do not always co-occur, and could have separate pathways to poor mental health. This is definitely a gap crying out to be addressed!

The big questions

The rest of the day was devoted to exploring two key questions:

1) Why might people who are lonely or socially isolated tend to develop mental health problems, or find it harder to recover?

2) Why are high rates of loneliness/social isolation found among people with mental health problems? Are there pathways from one to the other that could explain this?

The agenda involved a series of brief talks from a range of perspectives designed to stimulate discussion, such as architecture, psychology, neuroscience, and lived experience, followed by small group discussions about some of these factors, what the gaps in the research are, and how we could evaluate the links between mental health, loneliness, and social isolation. Each table hosted people from different backgrounds, disciplines and perspectives with the hope of generating ideas and themes that would help steer the first funding call.

One of the most moving talks of the day came from Bev Chipp, who shared her personal experiences and reflections of loneliness and mental health. She challenged us to think differently about people's experiences of loneliness and social isolation and provided much to keep in mind when exploring the above questions. Rather than looking at “routes” between mental health, loneliness and isolation, we were asked to consider “common roots”. These came in the form of early life experiences as a seed for both loneliness and mental health, personality traits such as introversion and avoidance, and how they could lead to feelings of failure and then depression. Thinking about my own personal experience, depression often does not allow you to leave your home and forces you to withdraw. Bev talked about how this often leads to short-term and perhaps longer-term social isolation, which then could lead to loneliness. She clearly articulated how there could be a concurrent development of loneliness, social isolation and poorer mental health rather than a single pathway.

She also highlighted important societal and social factors that could contribute to and maintain loneliness and social isolation in some people. This includes society's fixation on identity and how that can be linked to how you earn a living, and economic factors leading to exclusion. She described situations where people's first question on meeting was often around what your job was. Feeling that people's focus was on what you did rather than who you were, your interests and character, often lead to an avoidance of social situations. And being economically excluded from many types of situations which allow for social interaction also created further social isolation and feelings of loneliness.

One of her most interesting ideas was a call to develop a modern taxonomy of loneliness and one that avoids pathologising or blaming individuals, and also considers the more fractured, dystopian aspects of society. This makes complete sense to me as we are all shaped by our surroundings, physical, societal, political, and psychological and having a language and system to think and talk about different types of loneliness could provide a different kind of framework and strengthen future research.

Different perspectives

There were two rounds of small group discussions and each time I found myself on a table with an eclectic mix of people covering a huge breadth of topics. However, there were some common themes emerging out of the discussions. One was a call that ethnicity and race be considered in research into loneliness and how this could highlight different reasons for loneliness in some parts of society. Also, how factors at a societal and political level impact on people's integration into society and the pathways to loneliness and poorer mental health. Stigma and social identity were highlighted as important areas to explore too.

The theme of structural and environmental factors was also emphasised in other areas too, such as loneliness in younger people, people's experience of bullying at school and how that sometimes sets up longer term difficulties in connecting with people later in life. Social media and the digital world were other examples of environments that had the potential to create connectivity but also create isolation and feelings of loneliness. There was a definite call for more longitudinal studies exploring some of these areas and suggestions to use a more cross-cultural and ethnographic approach to truly explore the different layers to these constructs.

Overall, the day provided an abundance of ideas. I enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the workshop and learnt some new concepts. ‘Ecospsychosocial’ and ‘panopticon’ were not words in my vocabulary previously!

Following the meeting, the Network leads have identified a number of priority themes for the first funding call that went live on 21st October 2019. I look forward to seeing what new ideas Network members' submissions bring.

We would like to thank the member of the Network’s Co-Production Group (COG) who wrote this blog and who wishes to remain anonymous. 

Alex Vickery reports on the Future Roots/Countrymen conference she attended on behalf of the Network

Future Roots/Countrymen conference 04.10.19 at Folly Farm, Bristol

As I was pulling up to Folly Farm, just on the outskirts of Bristol, I was taken aback by the rural setting and was uncertain what to expect from the day. I had been to many events and conferences but none that took place in such a beautiful setting, despite the October downpour. I was warmly welcomed by the conference organisers and given my badge and conference pack. Albeit quite a small venue, it provided a perfect, intimate setting for the conference subject, and the reason for that setting being chosen became clearer as I learnt more about Future Roots and Countrymen throughout the day. The rural farm setting instigated thoughts about the wider issues that the day had planned to address: why are green and rural spaces important for combatting loneliness and isolation? The aim of the day was to explore questions of isolation and loneliness among vulnerable rural groups throughout life, and to discuss the development of the responses of social care, health, and other services. This is a particularly important issue and one which we should give more attention and care to, as these vulnerable rural groups are often left out of research and service provision. The conference was attended by a range of different people including those who were working in services supporting rural families, managers and commissioners of these services, academics working in the areas of loneliness, isolation and rural communities, as well as service users.

After introductions and housekeeping, the first speaker was Julie Plumley, the director of Future Roots (the organisation running the conference). Before the conference and Julie’s talk, I had not known of Future Roots or Countrymen or, to be honest, any farming interventions or services for loneliness and isolation. Julie spoke about how she founded Future Roots in 2006, having been born and raised on a Dorset family farm. Starting out as a social worker based in Dorset, Julie felt that for the young people she was helping through troubled times, a farm environment (which helped her through many troubled times as a young person) would benefit such young people’s learning and development, help to tackle loneliness and isolation they experienced and improve their lives. In 2008, she made her vision a reality and set up Future Roots, which is based at Rylands Farm, with the goal of building the wellbeing and resilience of everyone who takes part in programmes and to help them progress and achieve their potential. Following the success of Future Roots for younger people, Countrymen UK was also set up a few years ago after Julie’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and they could not find any suitable groups for older men who have come from a farming background to be around other men who have similar experience. Countrymen UK became a club for men based on a farm, where they are able to reconnect with themselves and to just “be men” again. This group and the goals of Countrymen UK particularly resonated with me and the research that I have undertaken, both through my PhD, which focused on men’s experiences of help seeking and coping for mental difficulties (also exploring the use of support groups), and also with the Older Men at the Margins project at The University of Bristol in collaboration with Age UK, which explored the older men’s experiences of combatting isolation and loneliness in later life. The latter explored rural men’s experiences and their use of male-only interventions (for example, Men’s Sheds) and so it was great to hear about all the wonderful work that Julie and Countrymen have done and continue to do to help older men cope with isolation and difficulties in living.

After Julie’s talk, we were all asked to think of a time in our lives when we have been lonely and then write a solution to this on a post-it note. This made me stop and consider how everyone (of all ages, genders, social backgrounds and circumstances) feels lonely at some point in their lives, as well as all the different solutions that can be personal and context-dependent for those experiencing those troubles. Following this activity, the next speaker was Sir Al Aynsley-Green, who is particularly action-focused in thinking about how to support children and young people in relation to isolation and loneliness today. In his recent book titled ‘The British Betrayal of Childhood’, he considers how children and young people are being portrayed today, and why we might be failing children. Sir Aynsley-Green spoke of all the work he has done, as well as other current movements and initiatives for children and young people today. I was particularly interested in hearing about all the services available, specifically about something called Winston’s Wish, which supports grieving children. The message I took home from this talk is that we need to ensure that we care enough about children today, look out for them emotionally and socially, especially because healthy, educated children will be the ones to support the elderly population in the future. In keeping with the focus on young people, Yvonne Shell, a consultant forensic and clinical psychologist talked about research that has explored the impact of loneliness on young people, specifically focusing on shame as a consequence of loneliness. Yvonne emphasised how people experience shame when they feel excluded and shame is at the heart of disconnection. She suggested that, loneliness and shame can lead to anger and violence in young people, which can then lead to further marginalisation. As a result, we must teach compassion to young people.

We heard some service user experiences from videos of the young people who attend Future Roots. I particularly loved these videos, and later in the day we also watched videos of the wives of the men who attended Countrymen UK club. These women also attended the conference for that particular afternoon session and it was so heart-warming and touching to see both the young people and wives’ personal stories, and how this organisation has had such a huge impact on improving their lives.

Mike Rogerson from Essex University gave us an academic exploration into the environments and ‘hooks’ (meaning something about an activity that hooks people to come along to it) that can change health, wellbeing and loneliness. Farms such as the one the conference was taking place at, and where Future Roots is based, can be arenas for doing something active. One particular stand out finding to me was how access to green space can reduce socioeconomic inequality in mental health by 40%, and that the gap is now narrowing in a positive way. Mike’s talk highlighted how environments can shape wellbeing behaviours and how services can design environments to shape certain behaviours and in order to help improve people’s lives we should consider the hooks for the target population aimed at helping.

Following a delicious lunch, in a different part of the farm, the afternoon consisted of talks from Rich Watts from NHS England, Sarah Hambridge a post-doctoral researcher from the University of Bournemouth, and Maria Clarke from the Dorset Local Nature Partnership. These were all varied and interesting talks, considering national government level health care, in particular social prescribing and the policies around that from Rich Watts and then an academic focus on research that has examined the mechanisms of a care farm environment that can support isolated young people to improve their mental and social health from Sarah Hambridge.

It was so valuable to have a range of perspectives, not just academic or not solely practice, deliver talks at this conference. To me it emphasised the multidimensional nature of finding solutions to isolation and loneliness for all ages and people of different backgrounds. This conference showed me more of what is being done to tackle loneliness and isolation in different groups of people. As well as this, it highlighted the varying ways in which the environment of the farm and countryside can improve people’s lives, and the valuable initiatives that are important and I feel should be getting more attention. Although a lot of the conference focused on younger people’s experiences and research on children and young people (compared to my previous research experience being in older men’s loneliness), it was particularly useful for me to gain a wider understanding and broaden my knowledge on the impact of loneliness and isolation for intersecting age groups, and also the social initiatives that can help to combat such phenomena. Overall, I found it a very useful and enjoyable day.

About the author

Alex Vickery
My name is Alex Vickery I am currently working as a Research Associate at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. I am currently working on the DICE project that explores diversity and inclusion in environments with care and support for older people. I have recently completed a PhD at Cardiff University that explored men’s mental health help seeking and everyday coping and management of distress. I also previously worked as a support worker for a leading mental health charity.
Lara McNally reports on the Parental Loneliness Stakeholder Event held by Network members from the University of Central Lancaster on 26th November 2019

Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network members, Rebecca Nowland and Lara McNally, held a collaborative Parental Loneliness stakeholder event on 26th November at the University of Central Lancashire. The purpose was to present the findings of a recent scoping review of the literature on parental loneliness, conducted by the Reducing the Impact of Parental Loneliness (RIPPLE) project, and to invite stakeholders to help develop future research priorities and questions. The day was attended by 13 stakeholders, with a range of healthcare professionals, including perinatal mental health nurses, midwifes and health visitors, and representatives from third sector organisations, most wearing two hats: being both a professional and a parent.  

From the very start of the day, as the room began to fill, many shared their own experiences of loneliness as a parent and were keen to know more about this often overlooked topic.  There was a wealth of knowledge in the room about experiencing loneliness in parenthood: attendees reflected on their own experiences and experiences of parents that they had worked with professionally.  People mingled over coffee, fruit and pastries and shared what it was about the event that had sparked heir interest.  They spoke of their areas of work and how loneliness had somehow never really crossed their mind, and yet they had always known it was there. 

Dr Rebecca Nowland, who leads the RIPPLE project, gave her presentation of the findings of our scoping review on world-wide literature on parental loneliness.  Rebecca spoke about the lack of research in this area, particularly for research in the UK. The emerging evidence indicates that some parents are at increased risk of experiencing loneliness: for instance, mothers with poor physical health and parents of children with disabilities.  Much of the research has not focused primarily on loneliness in parenthood, but measured loneliness as part of another area of interest such as depression or parenting stress. However, qualitative studies reveal that loneliness is an important issue for some parents. 

We then watched a video made by The Telegraph newspaper about the experience of parental loneliness, which showed the raw emotion of what it can be like to be a parent who is lonely, and how those feelings can be tackled positively.  This brief insight gave us all a glimpse of the experiences of a young mother and a father, just two of the many parents in the country experiencing loneliness. The parents in the video talked openly about their unexpected struggles becoming parents and of their successes in the way they combatted those feelings in a proactive and positive way. 

Following the video, brainstorming around the topic of loneliness in parents was thoughtful and flowed easily. Roundtable discussions created a stronger awareness of the need for more research in this area. A perinatal lead practitioner talked about how she couldn’t believe that loneliness isn’t measured on any of their mental health screening tools for new mums, such as the PHQ-9 and GAD7. In addition, delegates offered differing views on how being a working mum impacted on loneliness. One health visitor talked about how going back to work increased her feelings of loneliness, and a midwife shared how she felt less lonely when she went back to work. Following on from that, the ideas that each table had discussed were pooled and collated into themes, which will be used to help us develop the future research plans of the RIPPLE project.  

It was great to see the aims of the RIPPLE project being realised, with health professionals being made more consciously aware that loneliness can be an issue for some parents. The hope is that this understanding will be fed back to their respective teams, which will naturally lead to practitioners identifying loneliness in the people they care for and making practical suggestions to help them reduce it. Rebecca spoke about how, from the very start of the project, it has had a life of its own: the ripples of information filtering out through different channels are organically increasing awareness and understanding of loneliness in parenthood. Reducing loneliness in parents seems to be something that people are keen to discuss and see actions towards.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the day and feel very excited to see what the future has in store for the RIPPLE project, which I am very much proud to be a part of.  As an undergraduate student, it was a very inspiring day and I felt very lucky to be a part of it and have the opportunity to work on the research.  As a parent, the day highlighted for me the prevalence of loneliness of parents but also how, alarmingly, it often goes unspoken.   

Lara McNally is currently studying Psychology with Psychotherapy and Counselling at University of Central Lancashire, Preston. She says: "I live in the sunny Lancashire town of Accrington with my husband and our three children. For the past eight months, I have been a voluntary research assistant on the RIPPLE Project (Reducing the Impact of Parental Loneliness) working on their Scoping review paper on parental loneliness. This research is close to my heart as a parent of three and is great experience as I work towards my degree. Research was not something I thought I would ever enjoy, but this experience has given me a passion for it and is now something that I hope will be a big part of my future."

For further details about the RIPPLE project or how you can get involved, please contact Dr Rebecca Nowland by email: rnowland@uclan.ac.uk.

Network member Molly Bird reflects on the Network Showcase Symposium on 8th January 2020

On 8th January, the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network held a showcase symposium to hear about cutting edge research on loneliness, social isolation and how these can interact with our mental health.  Many people, including myself, attended the event, and The Mental Elf live tweeted content from the speakers to generate discussions and engagement ‘beyond the room’ to those unable to come in person.

The day was split into 4 groups of talks and three breaks to facilitate stimulating discussions on current loneliness and social isolation research. 

In the morning, we heard from Axel Seemann from the Department of Philosophy at Bentley University, who discussed the several ways the experience of loneliness has been defined and described how this might influence how interventions are targeted, for example depending on whether loneliness is conceptualised as subjective (interventions might focus on re-training cognitive biases), objective (interventions might provide opportunities to socialise) or relational (interventions might improve relationship quality through social skills development).  We then heard from historian Fred Cooper from the University of Exeter, who discussed his research with university students, examining differences between past and present understandings of loneliness and mental health.  Fred highlighted that historical work points to the shifting relationship between loneliness and mental health across the late twentieth century. We then heard from Dr Gemma Lewis from the Division of Psychiatry at UCL, who discussed an interesting (unpublished) 12-year population-based cohort study investigating the association between loneliness and depressive symptoms in older adults, led by an MSc student within the Division of Psychiatry, Siu Long Lee.  The final speaker of this group of talks was Dr Joanna McHugh Power from Maynooth University, who discussed her epidemiological research on loneliness and social engagement. You can hear more from Joanna on this by listening to her interview with The Mental Elf here

These first talks generated discussions at the tea break surrounding the conceptualisation of loneliness and how this may change over the course of history and across different groups of people.  We also reflected on associations between loneliness and mental health problems such as depression, and the ways in which loneliness can impact social engagement.   

Ahead of lunch, we heard from another group of speakers to give us food for thought.  First, Sam Fardghassesmi from the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at UCL discussed his qualitative study on the causes of loneliness among young people, reporting that social media and social pressures were identified as causes of loneliness in the young people he spoke with.  We then heard from Prof Rob Whitley from McGill University on the seduction community, with chronic loneliness and social isolation being commonly stated reasons for young men joining the community - you can hear more on this fascinating talk in Rob’s interview with The Mental Elf here.  Dr Alexandra Burton from the Division of Psychiatry at UCL then discussed the role of social support in promoting healthy lifestyle behaviours for people experiencing severe mental illness, emphasising that social support may enable healthy lifestyle behaviours to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.  Last, I spoke about my MSc study within the Division of Psychiatry at UCL investigating third sector perspectives on how we can reduce loneliness in young people experiencing mental health problems, highlighting the potential importance of a social connectedness approach within interventions for young people.

I felt this set of talks brought to mind the varying ways loneliness impacts different groups of people and how the use of qualitative methods can elucidate the experience of loneliness.  During lunch, many discussions were had reflecting on the interesting morning talks as well as this break providing an opportunity to browse some thought-provoking research posters on display. 

Within the penultimate set of speakers, Dr Penny Rappaport from the Division of Psychiatry at UCL spoke about the experiences of social isolation and loneliness in older people living with dementia and their carers.  Penny emphasized the role of using qualitative findings to inform interventions to support people with dementia.  Dr Isla Ripon at Brunel University then discussed the IDEAL study, a dyadic analysis on the influence of loneliness and isolation in carers and people living with dementia - do check out the IDEAL study website for more information here.  After this we heard from Heather McClelland from The Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, presenting findings from a fascinating systematic review of prospective studies investigating loneliness as a predictor of suicidal ideation - you can hear Heather discuss this work in her interview with The Mental Elf here.  The final speaker within this group was fellow UCL MSc graduate Maitri Khurana, who presented her interesting cross-sectional analysis investigating the association between sensory impairment and suicidal ideation and attempt, using nationally representative English household data.

This set of talks stressed the importance of investigating loneliness across both physical and mental health contexts, and how these can interact and impact on an individual’s quality of life as well as those supporting them.  

The final set of talks presented event attendees with innovative interventions aiming to reduce loneliness in people with mental health problems.  To start these off, we heard from Daniel Harrison from the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University, discussing the Pears Project: an intervention for postgraduate students using paper-based and digital techniques, as well as encouraging meeting up with other students to reduce loneliness.  Dr Anne-Kathrin Fett from the Department of Psychology at City University then discussed the use of ecological momentary methods within an app-based intervention to improve social functioning in schizophrenia; her interesting paper can be found here.  Following this, Victoria Carmichael from the Douglas Hospital Research Centre at the University of Oxford spoke about the use of participatory video as an intervention for ameliorating loneliness in people with severe mental illness. You can check out the Recovery Advocacy Documentary Action Research (RADAR) website, which aims to create short videos on anti-stigma and pro-recovery within a mental health context.  The last speaker of the day was Dr Susan Oman from the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield, who presented work on loneliness in new parents and the role of NCT groups in alleviating this. It was brilliant to see such a range of intervention research taking place across different disciplines, all working to investigate how loneliness could be reduced.

The Loneliness Symposium provided a great opportunity for people from various disciplines, occupations and walks of life to come together to discuss the important issue of loneliness and social isolation.  With The Mental Elf live tweeting the event, 176 people were able to join in discussions online and there was an impressive total of 12.6 million twitter impressions made, perhaps reflecting a growing awareness of the importance of learning more about the meaning of loneliness, the experience of loneliness and how interventions may reduce loneliness. 

Molly Bird, Network Early Careers Researcher

Molly Bird
Molly is currently a research assistant in the Division of Psychiatry, UCL, working on two projects investigating depression in primary care.  She recently completed the MSc Clinical Mental Health Sciences at UCL, during which she became very interested in the relationship between loneliness and mental health problems.

Grants

Successful Grant Applications

 Active ingredients commission from The Wellcome Trust

Network coordinator Ellie Pearce, Network co-investigators Roz Shafran, Sonia Johnson, and Network member Gerhard Andersson from Linköping University in Sweden were one of a select number of teams funded by Wellcome to review the evidence on which aspects of interventions really make a difference in preventing and treating youth anxiety and depression. Our team looked at reducing loneliness: the active ingredient we deemed among the most likely to help. We wrote a Mental Elf blog on what we found: Can reducing loneliness help to alleviate or prevent anxiety or depression in young people? This blog includes a short video and a podcast about our review.

The Wellcome Trust have released a report outlining the evidence about the first set of 'active ingredients', including reducing loneliness.

Read the peer-reviewed research paper here

Research collaboration with Campaign to End Loneliness

Network co-investigators Roz Shafran, Sonia Johnson, and Alexandra Pitman, along with network coordinator Mary Birken and network members Sophie Bennett and Anna Coughtrey, were commissioned to do a review entitled: “Strategies for encouraging psychological and emotional resilience in response to loneliness”. The Psychology of Loneliness report from the Campaign to End Loneliness, which includes the review of the literature conducted by the Network team, was released July 2020.

The project is funded by Lottery funds via the Campaign to End loneliness.

You can find the full report here.

Now available from UCL Discovery.