Driving through a middle class housing estate and noticing how deserted it was with everybody at work or behind closed doors, I wondered if loneliness is a trend of our era? If so, it didn’t start today or yesterday.
A few decades ago I spoke to a woman whose friend, a widow living on her own, had gone to live with her daughter and son-in-law. She found herself spending her days on a housing estate where not a soul was to be seen during working and school hours. I’d like to think she escaped back to her old home before it was sold, but she probably had to put up with those lonely days.
The loneliness trend may be accelerating and it’s bad in terms of physical and mental health. For instance, research published recently suggested that lonely people got less benefit than others from their first Covid vaccinations. Loneliness has long been implicated as a factor in ill health but nonetheless the finding seemed striking.
More on that later.
In Ireland 13.7 per cent of the population was lonely most or all of the time during the pandemic, according to Central Statistics Office (CSO) research conducted in November 2020. Six months earlier, the figure was 6.8 per cent, so that may be a better indication of loneliness levels in non-lockdown times. That CSO research showed that young people aged 18-34 were more likely to feel lonely than people over 70. At first glance, the figure seems surprising. At second glance, that group of people were in lockdown during the very time they would expect to be out and about making connections, so it’s not as surprising as it looks. Still, it’s interesting that loneliness among the over-70s had not significantly increased in the six or so months before the survey was taken. I wonder what proportion in that younger age group has been able to pick up the threads of social connection since matters eased?
Carl O’Brien’s recent Irish Times report on relatively low engagement by university students suggests that a lot of younger people are not getting back on track. Dropping out of college (and this is on the increase) drops a person out of a whole life-changing social scene. But loneliness is a complicated topic. Commenting on those figures last year on the Institute of Public Health website, Prof Roger O’Sullivan, said: “The reality is that some people with lots of friends can still feel lonely and those who live alone may not.” Loneliness, he said, should be tackled as a public health issue. That research on vaccinations I referred to earlier found that lonely people studied in the UK had a poorer antibody response than others to their first Covid-19 vaccination.
This isn’t a startling finding in itself because, as the report in Brain, Behavior and Immunity notes, “Stress and other psychosocial factors are known to influence antibody response to vaccinations.” The journal also notes that social cohesion, the sense of “being in this together” affects vaccination response. The lower the “in it together” feeling, the poorer the response. I think it’s useful to think of loneliness as a mental health issue as O’Sullivan suggests. How many young mothers in public housing are lonely and isolated, not to mention stressed out?
And where does that leave their physical and mental health and that of their children? And then there’s that young to mid-30s group, the students who aren’t coping that well with the opening up of everything and those older people who are lonely. And the more than 7,000 deaths from Covid will have left a legacy of loneliness as well as grief for many. Prof Siobhan O’Neill, Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, said in that Institute of Public Health report that “Isolation and loneliness are toxic to mental health, and Covid-19 has resulted in many more people feeling alone and disconnected.”
As we open up, let’s not forget that a lot of people also need help to “open out”.
Padraig O’Morain (Instagram,Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (email@example.com).