Fiona, who works as a fashion videographer, had a loving childhood, a strong family network with lots of support, and a good social life.
But the break up of a relationship, coupled with a job crisis last year – as a freelance, her work was erratic, with intense days followed by long periods when she was alone – plunged the 26-year-old into an abyss of loneliness she felt she might never climb out of.
‘It was a constant feeling of anxiety, panic and dread, continuously battling against a sea of alone time,’ she says. ‘This triggered emotions I’d never felt: the only way I can explain it was like nausea – a sudden wave of an overwhelming feeling of not wanting to be here any more,’ adds Fiona, who had never experienced mental health issues before.
‘Nothing prepares you for the loneliness adult life brings,’ she adds. ‘It’s hard to balance everything, and especially hard when you come home to an empty flat and there’s no one asking you how your day was.’
Research suggests that, like mental health, loneliness is partly environmental and partly to do with our genetic disposition.
The break up of a relationship, coupled with a job crisis last year, caused Fiona (pictured) to plunge into an abyss of loneliness she felt she might never climb out of
U.S. psychologists Daniel Perlman and Letitia Peplau described it as ‘the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way, either in quantity or quality’.
While it is not a mental health condition, research increasingly shows that it can affect both mental and physical wellbeing. Yet if it’s becoming less taboo to talk about mental illness, it still isn’t easy to talk about being lonely – or to admit to feeling it.
‘Living in London, one of the biggest cities in the world, I felt guilty about my loneliness,’ says Fiona.
‘Outwardly I’m very sociable, but even if I had plans, it was in the gaps in between when I was by myself that I felt especially low. I realised that you don’t have to look lonely to be desperately lonely.’
Fiona never imagined she would need to call the charity Samaritans, but she says now that ‘without a doubt, I wouldn’t be here without it’. She explains: ‘It gave me the space to say exactly how I was feeling during those waves of suicidal thoughts. Then, when I felt a bit better, finding people and groups I could relate to – in person and online – was incredibly helpful.’
Fiona joined Facebook groups – London Lonely Girls Club, Bamby Collective and a London Marathon training support group.
‘As a non-runner, it was a risky move, but it was the best thing I have ever done,’ she says.
‘I used to dread Sundays and Bank Holidays in particular, but the running training gave me structure, and a purpose,’ she says. ‘It also made me feel well physically and mentally.
‘Getting back into working in an office has also been important – and being surrounded by people a similar age.
Fiona joined Facebook groups – London Lonely Girls Club, Bamby Collective and a London Marathon training support group
‘My mental health is now the best it’s been and I’m comfortable in my own company, which is a hard thing to learn.’
Research published last week in the journal BMC Medicine found that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of dying prematurely: people who were never visited by friends or family had a 39 per cent increased risk of death compared with those who were visited daily, according to a Glasgow University study.
In fact, evidence linking loneliness with a raft of physical problems, from stroke and heart disease to dementia, is now so abundant that governments here, and in the U.S. and Japan recognise ‘the crisis of loneliness and isolation as one of our generation’s greatest challenges of our time’, as the U.S. surgeon general, Dr Vivek H. Murthy, put it earlier this year.
Japan, where 40 per cent of the population describes feeling lonely, appointed a loneliness minister in 2021 after a rise in suicides.
While Dr Murthy has pledged ‘to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity and the addiction crisis’, the UK is leading the way on this issue: five years ago, we became the first nation in the world to appoint a minister for loneliness.
It was one of the recommendations of the Loneliness Commission, which the Labour MP Jo Cox had set up before her murder in 2016.
The commission was a response to Jo’s own experience of deep loneliness when she was a student at Cambridge University and later as a new mum.
As an MP canvassing door-to-door in her Yorkshire constituency, she saw first-hand the crushing effect of loneliness.
‘Living in London, one of the biggest cities in the world, I felt guilty about my loneliness,’ says Fiona
The number of people in the UK who are chronically lonely has now risen to 3.83 million.
A survey by Age UK published in 2020 suggested that more than a million older people in Britain always or often feel lonely – nearly half of over-65s surveyed said that television and their pets were their main form of company.
As Jo Cox notably said: ‘Young or old, loneliness does not discriminate.’ Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that more than one in ten children aged ten to 15, and almost 10 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds are ‘often’ lonely.
New analysis of ONS data by the charity Campaign to End Loneliness has found that 16 to 29-year-olds are twice as likely to report feeling lonely often or always, than those aged over 70. The health implications of all this are stark. The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) says many GPs see between one and five lonely people a day – yet only 13 per cent feel equipped to help them, even though loneliness is associated with a raft of serious conditions. This includes a 29 per cent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, and a 32 per cent increased risk of stroke, reported the BMJ in 2016.
The National Institute on Aging in the U.S., puts it more graphically, comparing the health risks of prolonged isolation with the effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Other research has shown links between loneliness and type 2 diabetes, chronic pain, sleep and eating disorders, alcoholism, anxiety and depression.
In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that what’s bad for the heart is bad for the brain.
A study in the journal Geriatric Psychiatry in 2017 found that lonely people decline cognitively 20 per cent faster.
Last week’s study by Glasgow University echoes a key study in 2015 by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in the U.S. She analysed 70 papers, involving 3.4 million people across seven years, and found that those who lived alone and described themselves as lonely had a staggering 32 per cent increased risk of early death.
The late John Cacioppo, a U.S. neuroscientist who became known as Dr Loneliness for his pioneering work studying the brains of lonely people, saw loneliness as an evolved signal, much like hunger and pain, and which we must respond to by trying to reconnect with others.
His brain imaging studies found that the loneliest brains showed the least empathy and trust.
‘It’s dangerous as a member of a social species to feel isolated, so the brain snaps into self-preservation mode,’ he said.
‘Dangerous’ because fear also raised the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in fragmented sleep and increased inflammation in the body. He maintained the answer isn’t a hectic social life but a few, close relationships.
‘Consider volunteering to build empathy and don’t wait. The next time you feel isolated, respond as you would to hunger, thirst and pain and get connected.’
The current Minister for Loneliness, Stuart Andrew, the Conservative MP for Pudsey, West Yorkshire, understands only too well the depth of personal misery involved.
‘There were two points in my life when I’ve felt really lonely,’ says the 51-year-old.
‘The first was when I was a teenager and realised I was gay.
‘Growing up in rural Wales in the 1980s, I felt terribly isolated and lonely: I just didn’t know where to turn.’
Then, when he was first elected to parliament, he went from his ‘tiny constituency town in Yorkshire to London, where I hardly knew anyone’.
He adds: ‘But because I’d been through it before, I knew I had to do something.
‘I immersed myself in the job and I made sure that I missed no opportunity to speak to other people and join groups whenever and wherever I could – particularly when I least felt like it.’ One of the key issues, he says, is reducing stigma around loneliness, one of the reasons he’s so open about his own experiences.
‘Until we tackle the stigma we will never know the true picture,’ he says.
In 2018, the RCGP published an action plan which included ‘encouraging everyone to take action to tackle loneliness by checking on their neighbours’.
Ill-health is a known driving factor – 24 per cent of people with disabilities and long-term health conditions reported experiencing loneliness, compared with 9 per cent of those not affected by ill-health – and can make it even harder to make the first move, as Stuart Andrew explains.
‘Taking that first step can be very challenging when you’ve felt isolated for a long time, I call it ‘getting through the door syndrome’, but there are ways to tackle that. Befriending services are really good.’ (See box.)
Could medication be a solution? From 2017 to 2019, Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Chicago (and wife of John Cacioppo), trialled a drug called pregnenolone, which she hoped could reduce the social fear that makes lonely people withdraw.
But while early results suggested it might help, she ultimately conceded that a drug alone is not the answer.
After her husband died in 2018, she wondered how she would survive – their relationship was so close, they’d been ‘like twins’, she says. Exercise helped – she ran six miles a day and believes that the endorphins, ‘feel-good’ chemicals, that produced provided the benefits without the potential side-effects of medication.
Some of the best solutions to loneliness are neither complex nor expensive.
One of the most successful has been social prescribing, where GPs connect people with voluntary organisations and local charities with trained befrienders.
NHS England aims to refer at least 900,000 people for social prescribing by 2024.
‘In my own constituency, GPs identified people suffering from chronic joint pain who were unable to get out and socialise,’ says Stuart Andrew.
‘Patients were invited to take up a free three-month private gym membership. Afterwards, a few had come off NHS waiting lists for surgery because they felt so much better. Most importantly, they’d formed such a bond, they’d got their own WhatsApp group – and some of them were going on holiday together. It made a massive difference to their lives.’
But these programmes tend to address older people, while it’s the younger age groups who are more likely to experience loneliness.
In 2018, 55,000 people took part in The Loneliness Experiment, a study led by developmental psychologist Professor Pamela Qualter, from Manchester University: 40 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds who took part said they often or very often felt lonely, compared with 27 per cent of over-75s.
This may be explained by a recent study in January in the journal Health, Psychology and Behavioural Medicine, which found that more time spent on social media was associated with a greater degree of loneliness, as the connections made were not close or meaningful.
‘It doesn’t surprise me that young people are more likely to report feeling lonely,’ says Professor Qualter. ‘They’re at a point in life where they’re trying to work out their place in the world, and that’s hard.’
But, she adds: ‘Loneliness, for most of us, doesn’t last for ever and can be seen as positive because it gets us to re-evaluate our social relationships and work on making changes.
‘The problem, of course, is having the opportunities for change – do we have the skills to develop new relationships or the finances and opportunities to do so?’
So while the problem is more common in younger people, it may be more entrenched for older people because, for them, it’s less likely to be a passing problem.
In September, the British Red Cross and more than 80 other charities signed up to a call to action to lobby the Government to do more to tackle loneliness.
In a scheme that runs until March 2025, up to £30 million has been allocated through the Government’s Know Your Neighbourhood Fund, to support people experiencing chronic loneliness and create opportunities to volunteer in 27 of the country’s most deprived areas.
Projects, which are run through local charities, include skills-sharing sessions, arts and crafts groups, befriending services, parent and toddler groups, lunch clubs and gardening activities.
‘Working out why you feel lonely is a first step to working out which solution might work for you – and if one solution doesn’t work, it’s always worth trying another,’ advises Professor Qualter.
‘Don’t worry if your attempts to overcome loneliness don’t work initially.
‘There is a whole toolkit of potential solutions that we can try to overcome it, so do not get discouraged.’
- For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or go to samaritans.org
- For advice on help with loneliness go to campaignto endloneliness.org