Date Published: 25 May 2010

Modern way of life leading to loneliness, according to recent report

Mental Health issues - UK
Mental Health issues - UK

According to a new report released by the Mental Health Foundation, relationships that are vital to health and well-being are under threat by modern life, which can isolate people from one another and lead to loneliness. UK-wide research carried out for The Lonely Society? shows that one in ten people often feel lonely (11%) and half think that people are getting lonelier in general (48%).

  • One in ten people feel lonely often
  • Loneliness a common experience yet 'embarrassing to admit'
  • Feeling alone linked to physical and mental ill health

The report says the way in which people now live is impacting on their ability to connect with others. More people live alone: the percentage of households occupied by one person doubled from 6% in 1972 to 12% in 2008. The divorce rate has almost doubled in the past 50 years and the number of lone parent households is rising. People are living longer but many older people are doing so alone. Because of people pursuing careers and education opportunities, many now live further away from their families and the communities they grew up in. Figures show that one in three people would like to live closer to their family to see them more often (35%).

Old-style communities are in decline and the closure of local amenities such as post offices and working men's clubs have had an impact on people for whom they were a focal point, particularly those living on the margins of society and vulnerable to loneliness, such as the elderly, people out of work or those living with a disability.

Loneliness can affect people of all ages

Research in The Lonely Society? illustrates that feeling lonely is not only common among the elderly. A recent report from the NSPCC** found that children are reporting more experiences of loneliness than in previous years, and middle age is a time when people can find themselves isolated as a result of retirement, children leaving the family home, divorce and bereavement, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

The statistics reveal that women are more likely than men to feel lonely sometimes (38%, compared with 30%). A greater number of women (47%) than men (36%) have felt depressed because they felt alone, and have sought help for feeling lonely (13% women, compared to 10% men). This is consistent with existing research that women are generally more likely to seek professional help for health related problems.

Loneliness a common experience yet 'embarrassing to admit to'

Loneliness a common experience: the report reveals only 1 in 5 people never feel lonely (22%) and 1 in 3 people have a close friend or family member who they think is very lonely (37%) yet one in three people would be embarrassed to admit to feeling lonely (30%). This reluctance, according to the Mental Health Foundation, is because western societies take pride inself-reliance.

Pressure to be 'productive' can lead to loneliness

The charity's report suggests that a shift in attitudes is also contributing to loneliness. For some, investing time in social activities is seen as less important than work. Evidence in The Lonely Society? shows that people feel pressure to be 'productive' and busy, and as a consequence neglect vital relationships with friends and family. Individuals pursuing aspirations in a market-driven world may be doing so at their own expense, and neglecting the basic human need to connect with others, says the Mental Health Foundation.

Loneliness linked to health problems

While loneliness is a natural emotion that has played a part in human evolution, feeling lonely for a long time can lead to physical and mental health problems. Polling for the report reveals that four in ten people have felt depressed because they felt alone (42%). Persistent loneliness is also linked to stress, as well as poorer functioning of the immune and cardiovascular systems. Evidence shows that loneliness makes it harder to control the habits and behaviour that can lead to health problems. Lonely middle-aged adults drink more alcohol, have unhealthier diets and take less exercise than the socially contented.

Technology: friend or foe?

Polling for the report reveals that one in five people say they spend too much time communicating with family and friends online when they should see them in person (18%). The internet has changed the way people communicate but some experts argue that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter undermine social skills and the ability to read body language.

Evidence in The Lonely Society? also reveals that technology doesn't provide the physical contact that benefits well-being. Cognitive function improves when a relationship is physical, as well as intellectual, because of the chemical process that takes place during face-to-face communication. This type of interaction produces the hormone oxytocin, which is thought to underpin the link between social contact and healthy hearts.

Technology is no substitute for human interaction, but the Mental Health Foundation says that it can facilitate relationships, both virtual and real, and can be used to reduce social isolation especially for those who are experiencing chronic loneliness, whether the root is emotional or circumstantial.

Need to help people experiencing loneliness

The charity is raising awareness of loneliness and of the steps people and policy-makers can take to combat isolation. It believes that everyone needs to be aware of the potential health problems linked to loneliness. The Lonely Society? states that individuals at risk of isolation, such as elderly people, those out of work and people with disabilities, should be offered support at an early stage to reduce their vulnerability to chronic loneliness and it's associated health problems.

Source: The Mental Health Foundation, UK.

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