5 things I learned from the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network Summer Showcase

The team behind the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network (LSIMHRN) recently held their Summer Showcase event during Loneliness Awareness Week. 

The summer showcase celebrated everything the network achieved in the past four years and was a call for the next steps in tackling loneliness, social isolation and the impact they have on mental health.

I learned a lot over the course of the day. It can be hard to summarise six hours of fascinating sessions into one single blog. But let’s have a go anyway! 

You can watch the full showcase here. See the caption for timestamps to catch the different speakers.

1. Loneliness and social isolation are two separate things. You can have one without the other

It’s easy to conflate loneliness and social isolation as one concept. However, one thing we learned from the lockdowns is that you can be physically isolated, observing social distancing restrictions, and still be connected with your loved ones. You can also be lonely and surrounded by people. 

Bev, an LSIMHRN Coproduction Group (CoG) member for the network shared a story from a research participant who described having ‘lost his velcro’; he was meeting new people all the time, but nothing was sticking. One parent told her “I have a husband and four kids but I still feel lonely”.

Bev stressed the need for researching loneliness and social isolation as separate entities, as there are many cases where one can occur without the other.

2. There’s a bidirectional relationship between loneliness and mental health problems

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Sometimes two things are so interconnected it can be challenging to determine which causes which. When it comes to loneliness and mental health problems the two can cause one another.

Farhana Mann shared her findings on Loneliness and the onset of new mental health problems in the general population.  She and her coworkers conducted a meta-analysis of a vast number of studies on loneliness and mental health. Her findings? That loneliness can more than double the risk for depression, and more than triple the risk for anxiety disorders. She also highlighted that there wasn’t enough longitudinal research on loneliness and the onset of psychosis, or someone being diagnosed with a ‘personality disorder’ (or complex emotional mental health needs). More research needs to be done on these important topics.

Ravneet Virdi, Head of Tackling Loneliness at the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport, was one of many speakers to address the bidirectional relationship between loneliness and mental health problems. She told us how people didn’t want to be seen as a ‘loner’ or a ‘downer’ in research the DCMS has commissioned (in the words of the people researchers spoke to) so wouldn’t reach out for support, further entrenching their feelings of loneliness.

3. If you think loneliness only affects older people, think again

When LSIMHRN started in 2018, most research into loneliness was focused on people over the age of sixty. However, the network has endeavoured to understand how it affects other populations too.

One statistic mentioned numerous times was that  40% of the 16 to 24-year-old participants in the BBC Loneliness Experiment, told the researchers they often or very often feel lonely, compared with 27% of those aged over 75. Although it is important to address loneliness in older people, there are higher rates of loneliness in young people. This is an urgent research priority.

LSIMHRN Coordinator Ellie Pearce shared findings from the paper Loneliness as an Active Ingredient in preventing or alleviating depression in young people. Ellie stressed the need for people developing strategies in this area to codesign them with young people and tailor them to their specific needs.

The network has funded a number of projects to understand young people and loneliness, as well as trialling interventions.

I attended two parallel sessions during the showcase. I heard from LSIMHRN-funded projects looking at loneliness in the farming community, online dance classes for young people living with anxiety, and a number of studies on loneliness in perinatal mothers. It was especially moving to hear testimonials from new mothers and how they felt guilty struggling with low mood and isolation during a time society tells them should be the happiest of their lives. I’m glad that LSIMHRN-funded researchers have been working hard on this issue.

4. Centring lived experience in loneliness and social isolation research is essential

Working together with people who have experienced loneliness helps keep research relevant for the people it aims to help. This is something LSIMHRN has excelled at during its lifetime.

Network co-lead Alexandra Pitman told us about the resources the network has developed to help mental health researchers create more effective co-produced research. A valuable resource for any researcher wanting to make an impact!

During the day, we heard from some of the network’s Coproduction Group (CoG) members. Patrick and Bev shared their experiences working on a co-produced guide for people who experience loneliness. CoG members interviewed people struggling with feelings of loneliness and social isolation to create the guide. The fact the interviewers had lived experiences of loneliness themselves helped build rapport with the interviewees. Read Conversations around Loneliness and Mental Health here.

5. Although we’re moving in the right direction, there’s still so much more we can learn about loneliness, social isolation and mental health

In the past four years, LSIMHRN has forged connections, developed resources, and helped shine a light on the importance of research into this topic. But there are still knowledge gaps that researchers need to find answers for.

The afternoon sessions focused on what’s next for research into loneliness and social isolation and mental health. There were quick-fire question rounds where network members shared their top priorities for mental health research on this topic. Key points included: 

  • the need to improve our understanding of loneliness for marginalised people
  • finding better methods for measuring loneliness and social isolation
  • offering support that is interest based rather than mental health based for stronger and long-lasting connections; and
  • researching loneliness and social isolation separately – highlighting the times you can have one without the other.

Final thoughts

If you missed the Loneliness and Social Isolation Summer Showcase, there are videos available on the Mental Elf YouTube channel. If you are only able to watch only one of the fascinating sessions, check out Bev and Patrick’s session on ‘Conversations around Loneliness’. Bev and Patrick are excellent speakers, and they filled their talk with powerful testimonials.

Well done to everyone who organised this showcase event! I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the wealth of fantastic research and resources that the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network have created.

Check out the videos here.

Keep an eye on the events page for news of other showcase events from the UKRI mental health research networks.