Loneliness research and policy report - Scotland

We all know what loneliness feels like. Feeling lonely from time to time is a normal part of life. But when loneliness is severe or lasts a long time, it can negatively affect our mental health. This report explores what it’s like to be lonely: its causes, consequences and the groups of people who are more likely to experience severe and enduring loneliness.

We look at the strong links between loneliness and mental health. We share the stories of nine individuals who often or always feel lonely. We consider the circumstances, situations and life events that can increase our risk of loneliness. We also set out new findings around the public’s understanding of loneliness and who it affects. We share some of the ways people cope with loneliness day-to-day. We explain why we need to address practical, structural and psychological barriers to connection if we want to reduce the burden of loneliness and prevent its impacts on mental health.

We find that while anyone can experience loneliness, certain risk factors increase our chances of severe and lasting loneliness that can affect our mental health. These include:

  • Being widowed
  • Being single
  • Being unemployed
  • Living alone
  • Having a long-term health condition or disability
  • Living in rented accommodation
  • Being between 16 and 24 years old
  • Being a carer
  • Being from an ethnic minority community
  • Being LGBTQ+

Long-term loneliness can impact our mental and physical health – which has implications not just for individuals but also for society at large. Being lonely for a long time can lead to a negative spiral: loneliness makes it harder to connect, which leads to people being afraid of social situations, meaning it is harder to find joy in life and escape negative thoughts.

The stigma of loneliness makes it hard to talk about. People worry about being judged or feeling like a burden.

Michael’s story - Understanding your inner self helps to cope with time alone

Michael is 58 and from South East England. He lives alone in the family home which is up for sale. Michael has experienced long-term mental health issues and rarely left the house between 1989 and 2016 when his mother, who had supported him became ill. She died in May 2020 and Michael is deeply lonely without her. !Loneliness is like being on a desert island. You feel there’s only you. Normally, when you go through something, you have friends, you have family, so you’re going through it with them because you’re in contact with them. It’s feeling like you’re on a desert island, so it’s all on your shoulders. Going through whatever it is you’re going through, you’re entirely alone.”

Why loneliness matters

Loneliness and social isolation are related but not the same thing. Social isolation is an objective lack of social contacts, which can be measured by the number of relationships a person has. Someone who is socially isolated isn’t necessarily lonely, nor is a lonely person necessarily socially isolated. This report focuses on loneliness rather than social isolation.

Loneliness and social isolation are related but not the same thing. Social isolation is an objective lack of social contacts, which can be measured by the number of relationships a person has. Someone who is socially isolated isn’t necessarily lonely, nor is a lonely person necessarily socially isolated. This report focuses on loneliness rather than social isolation.

Key points

  • Loneliness is the feeling we have when there is a mismatch between the relationships we have and those that we need
  • Loneliness is a normal part of life. But long-lasting or severe loneliness can affect our mental health
  • National levels of loneliness increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Those that were at greater risk of loneliness before the pandemic was more affected by loneliness during it
  • Loneliness is now understood to be a social determinant of health and a public health priority

Rachel's story

Rachel is 29 and lives in a small town in Wales. She is a single parent to two children aged seven and 12. She is currently unable to work because of her mental and physical health conditions. She struggles with loneliness as she spends a lot of time alone. “Obviously both my children are in school, so I’m just in the house on my own during the day. It can get quite lonely because I don't have many friends and the only adult conversation I do have is with my parents.”

How loneliness affects our mental health

The brief, fleeting feelings of loneliness that most of us have experienced aren’t likely to harm our mental health. However, severe loneliness and poor mental health are interlinked and can make each other worse, although it can be hard to establish which came first.

Why does loneliness matter?

As well as being deeply distressing for individuals, loneliness has wider implications for our communities and society. Evidence shows that loneliness leads to greater pressure on public services through, for instance, increased GP visits, longer hospital stays, increased likelihood of entering residential care and the costs of associated conditions such as depression and diabetes.

In recent years, loneliness has been recognised as a key social determinant of health and has been adopted as a public health priority across local authorities and health bodies. In 2018, the UK Government published its first national strategy on loneliness. Strategies have also been published for Scotland and Wales.

Mehnaz's story - The power of authentic relationships with people who won’t judge

Mehnaz is 26 years old and lives with her parents in Birmingham. She is a student nearing the end of her degree. Her studies were interrupted by ill-health, leading to her completing a three-year degree in nine years. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Her symptoms include tiring quickly when walking and memory and concentration issues. Her diagnosis is a major factor in her loneliness. "That led to me isolating myself from everyone, literally everyone in my life.”

Loneliness and the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to confront loneliness in a new way. Social distancing restrictions and lockdowns meant many more people faced social isolation and loneliness. At the beginning of the pandemic, loneliness levels were much the same as they had been in 2016-17, with 5% of adults in Great Britain saying they were often or always lonely. By February 2021, however, this had increased to 7.2% - 3.7 million adults.

Our own COVID-19 study showed that feelings of loneliness increased rapidly during the first lockdown. However, while there was a lag in the reduction in levels of loneliness after restrictions eased, they have now come back down to more typical pre-pandemic levels.

Karen's story - Staying busy day-to-day to keep loneliness at bay

Karen is 55. She was recently widowed and lives alone while her son is at university. She was diagnosed with ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome two years ago. “Before I was diagnosed with ME, I was very active. I was working full-time. I was looking after my disabled husband. I was raising my son. I would have done a lot of horse-riding. I would have done a lot of walking, a lot of mountain hill walking. And we would be out of the house all day on a Sunday. Saturday morning, horse-riding, taking my son to his football practice. It was a full-on seven-day-a-week responsibility.”

Who experiences loneliness?

Risk factors for loneliness before and during the pandemic There is a high degree of consistency across datasets around the predictors of loneliness – what makes someone more likely to feel lonely. In 2016-17, the ONS clustered the predictors of loneliness into three profiles to help illustrate the type of person who may be at greater risk of loneliness.

Key points

  • Anyone can be lonely, but certain factors increase the risk of severe or long-lasting loneliness which can affect our mental health
  • Risk factors for loneliness include being widowed, being single, living alone, being unemployed and having a long-term health condition
  • Understanding more about these risk factors can help us to effectively address loneliness and see it as a problem that can affect anyone
  • The pandemic has heightened disadvantages among groups that were already at an increased risk of loneliness

Dan's story - Going to the gym keeps you motivated and connected

Dan is 21 and in his second year of university in Scotland. He lives in a shared flat with three others. He has often felt lonely since moving away from home. Dan has ADHD which was diagnosed when he was 17. He says that this has made it hard for him to build genuine connections.“It’s just feeling very disconnected from the world. Very maybe not satisfied within my skin almost and feeling a bit isolated just overall.”

What does loneliness feel like?

This report includes the stories of nine individuals. They come from a range of backgrounds, live in different places around the UK and experience different challenges, but all often or always feel lonely. Their personal stories show just how much is captured with the word ‘loneliness’, the complex factors that lead to loneliness and the way it affects our mental health.

Lakshmi's story - Words of encouragement from someone with time to listen and talk make all the difference

Lakshmi is in her 20s and lives in London. She has experienced mental health challenges since her teenage years and has often felt lonely. A strong taboo around mental health issues within the Tamil community, in which she grew up, contributed to her feelings of isolation.  “In my community, they don’t talk about mental health. And because of that, you feel more alone when you’re struggling with something.”

Do people understand loneliness?

Key points

  • The public understands the link
  • between loneliness and mental health
  • There is still a significant stigma surrounding loneliness despite how common it is
  • While the public understands that life events, circumstances and our wider community can all leave us at risk of loneliness, they tend to overlook groups of people who may be 'lonely in a crowd’.
  • Stereotypes about who feels lonely can make it harder for people to recognise their own loneliness and risk leaving gaps in society’s responses to it

Kelvin's story - Finding a new sense of purpose and identity can unlock loneliness

Kelvin is 51 and lives in Greater London. He is divorced, lives alone and has been unemployed since a period of ill health led to him losing his job in IT three years ago. Kelvin is looking for work and feels this is a key factor in his loneliness. “When you find it difficult to get into work, I think that, in its own way, is a kind of loneliness. Feeling unwanted, rejected. A lot of my issues lie with the fact that I’m not at work I think especially for guys. We define ourselves by our ability to generate (income.)”

Public understanding of the drivers of loneliness

We also wanted to explore whether the public understood what could lead to people becoming deeply lonely for a long time, and whether they had stereotypes about loneliness.

Donna's story - Finding an outlet for your feelings is healthy

Donna is 48 and lives in a small town in the southeast of England. She cares for her autistic 17-year-old daughter, and for her partner who lives with ongoing pain and mobility issues following the botched treatment of a knee injury. She works part-time and is responsible for her family and two lively dogs. While Donna is rarely alone, she feels lonely as she has no one to share her burdens with. “My partner can’t take regular work, so I get up and go out and work and earn my salary. I have felt that I’m carrying a burden on my shoulders. I live around some difficult circumstances and cope with health issues that nobody else really understands. That in itself makes you feel quite lonely because finding someone who ‘gets it’ and that you can talk to is not easy.”

Stereotypes of lonely people

Our findings show how many stereotypes about loneliness still persevere, despite people’s understanding of the nuanced causes of loneliness. In particular, people tend to assume that loneliness is about age and physical isolation. These stereotypes can lead people to overlook those who are ‘lonely in a crowd’ – including students, carers and people in urban areas.

In the UK nationally representative survey of 6,000 adults, we asked people for descriptions of a ‘typical person who feels lonely'.

Sara's story - Putting yourself out there is worth it

Sara has struggled with her mental health throughout her life. She has ADHD and is bisexual, which she feels create additional barriers to connecting with people. “There’s not a lot of people my age I get to interact with. I also have had mental health struggles and have not been able to talk to people about them. Not finding people that have shared that experience that I can talk to, it’s quite lonely sometimes.”

Why do stereotypes matter?

Stereotypes can prevent people from recognising and responding to their own loneliness, exacerbate the stigma of loneliness and unhelpfully narrow the support that is offered to people who feel lonely. It’s important, therefore, to broaden our understanding of loneliness and who it affects.

Help and advice on how to cope with loneliness and improve your mental health

Dealing with loneliness can be difficult. But there are things we can all do to cope with loneliness and prevent some of the negative feelings and mental health problems that can come with it. Have a look at some coping strategies that you might find useful.

Addressing loneliness across society

Human beings are social creatures. For the great majority of us, social connection and belonging are central to our well-being.

Scottish Government Strategies In 2018, the Scottish Government published their ‘A Connected Scotland’ strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness in Scotland. The strategy was underpinned by an initial £1M of funding over a two-year period. In 2021, as part of a £10 million commitment to support a new five-year social isolation and loneliness plan, the Scottish Government provided £1 million to projects supporting carers and disabled people to tackle isolation and loneliness.