Research and evidence: Social isolation

More awareness of social isolation is needed to offset the risk of serious mental health problems developing, according to a survey. Lee Quinney looks at the findings


KEY WORDS: Loneliness isolation stigma mental health society

AUTHOR: Jo Griffin

Title: The Lonely Society?

Aim: Highlight the problems associated with loneliness in modern society by providing some basis for exploring how it affects the well-being of individuals.

Methodology: The report includes an appraisal of literature on loneliness, and draws on findings from a survey of 2,256 people about their experiences of loneliness, alongside interviews with mental health professionals and providers.

Conclusion: There is a case for raising awareness of loneliness among the public, and the need to intervene to prevent it becoming chronic. When it does become chronic, it turns from a natural emotion to something that can affect mental and social well-being.

The findings are clear: more people feel lonely nowadays, yet it warrants further investigation to understand the complexities of the issue.

It would have been preferable for the survey to ask for more detailed reasons why people felt lonely in order to establish stronger links between loneliness and age, gender, location, time spent alone, or the quality of relationships. Stronger analysis on the last point is much-needed.

Findings are taken at face value, and there is no discussion about the reliability or validity of the chosen approach. It is a shame there is no debate about bias or influential factors that might affect the answers people gave.

The author’s repeated use of words “show us” to present findings feels sensitive to the topic, but the claim that findings from this sample can be generalised to the wider population is questionable.

The author acknowledges that findings do not categorise over-55s into age ranges, but this is a missed opportunity given how many older people experience loneliness and can be seriously at risk when they are alone and vulnerable.

Women may have felt more comfortable in discussing the issue, given how more women (38%) than men (30%) reported feeling lonely. These are issues that would benefit from future investigation, such as the issue of stigma, given that 23% of respondents said they would be too embarrassed to seek help.


In response to growing awareness about the impact of modern society on mental health, this report examines loneliness as an area of interest, that has for some time received insufficient debate or research. Loneliness is examined in the social and structural context of society, with reference to capitalism, urbanisation and social change, and in the psychological and emotional context of well-being. Case studies, narratives and a literature review support the idea of a more proactive approach to tackling loneliness.


The survey results showed 42% of people felt depressed because they felt alone, 35% wanted to live closer to family in order to see them more often, and 29% said they did not have enough time to spend with family. In addition, 11% reported seeking help for their loneliness, yet many people felt too embarrassed to admit to being lonely (30%).

Regional differences in responses could be seen in a north-south divide. Nearly double the percentage of people in south west England have sought help for loneliness than the north east.

Generational differences exist as the younger survey participants reported feeling more lonely. No statistical test of correlation between age and loneliness was undertaken but the percentages do show a difference between age groups. For instance, 18- 34-year-olds reported feeling most lonely, but 31% of them felt they spent too much time communicating to people online. This provides a tentative connection between lack of direct human contact and an increase in feelings of loneliness, but this age group was more likely to use technology (62%) to keep in touch with those they felt would otherwise lose contact with them.

Given that they reported higher rates of loneliness, the quality of relationships in individuals’ lives might be an issue, as less secure or enriching relationships might provoke feelings of loneliness and isolation.


The consequences of the “lonely society” are stark. The report points to “a link between our individualistic society and the possible increase in common mental health disorders in the past 50 years, and research shows that mental health problems occur more often in unequal societies that leave behind more vulnerable people”.


The report recommends a more proactive response to loneliness in society by professionals with an interest in well-being and mental health. Attempts should be made to create greater awareness such as a public debate that helps to tackle the stigma of loneliness, and there should be better information on websites to provide practical advice to people on tackling it. This should go alongside greater emphasis on identifying loneliness in assessments by social workers and GPs.

Sports clubs, local authority websites, book and social network groups, transport links and volunteering opportunities can all help reduce loneliness. Information on these activities needs to be available in day centres and health centres and from mental health services, schools and youth projects.

Commissioners should also establish more “good neighbour” schemes, peer support groups and similar local projects that encourage face-to-face contact in communities. Services need to be appealing to people of all ages, including young people.


For social workers:

● Service users need to feel like they can talk about loneliness.

● Practitioners should aim to identify loneliness and social isolation in assessments before it becomes chronic and affects mental health.

● Interventions aimed at alleviating or preventing chronic loneliness need to include attention to the ongoing impact of social exclusion on people.

● Training may be required to assist professionals in working with loneliness.

For directors:

● Senior managers and directors should consider the widespread financial and community benefits in tackling issues of social isolation and loneliness.

● Strength of joint strategic direction across service partnerships is important.

● Leadership at a senior level is needed to raise awareness of the issue.

For commissioners:

● Strategic and planning priorities for the future need to include an awareness of the widespread impact of loneliness and isolation in society.

● Local services will benefit from scoping areas of service use where people are likely to experience loneliness the most.

● A holistic approach to service design and implementation is needed across health, housing, leisure and social care services.

● More talking therapies could help people relate to others, while clinical psychologists and psychiatrists can help to address emotional issues that make it difficult for people to form relationships.

Lee Quinney is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Glamorgan

Further reading

● Cacioppo and William (2009), Loneliness, Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, Norton and Co.

● Csoti (2005), Overcoming Loneliness and Making Friends, Sheldon Press.

● Gierveld and Tilburg (2006), “A six-item scale for overall, emotional, and social loneliness: confirmatory tests on survey data”, Research on Ageing, 28(5), 582-598.

● Olds and Schwartz (2009), The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century, Beacon Press.

● Penninx, Tilberg, Kriegsman, Boeke, Deege, and Eijk (1999), “Social network, social support, and loneliness in older persons with different chronic illnesses,” Journal of Ageing, 11(2), 151-168.

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