Background: Loneliness is associated with many mental health conditions, as both a potential causal and an exacerbating factor. Richer evidence about how people with mental health problems experience loneliness, and about what makes it more or less severe, is needed to underpin research on strategies to help address loneliness.
Methods: Our aim was to explore experiences of loneliness, as well as what helps address it, among a diverse sample of adults living with mental health problems in the UK. We recruited purposively via online networks and community organisations, with most interviews conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted with 59 consenting participants face-to-face, by video call or telephone. Researchers with relevant lived experience were involved at all stages, including design, data collection, analysis and writing up of results.
Findings: Analysis led to identification of four overarching themes: 1. What the word "lonely" meant to participants, 2. Connections between loneliness and mental health, 3. Contributory factors to continuing loneliness, 4. Ways of reducing loneliness. Central aspects of loneliness were lack of meaningful connections with others and lack of a sense of belonging to valued groups and communities. Some drivers of loneliness, such as losses and transitions, were universal, but specific links were also made between living with mental health problems and being lonely. These included direct effects of mental health symptoms, the need to withdraw to cope with mental health problems, and impacts of stigma and poverty.
Conclusions: The multiplicity of contributors to loneliness that we identified, and of potential strategies for reducing it, suggest that a variety of approaches are relevant to reducing loneliness among people with mental health problems, including peer support and supported self-help, psychological and social interventions, and strategies to facilitate change at community and societal levels. The views and experiences of adults living with mental health problems are a rich source for understanding why loneliness is frequent in this context and what may address it. Co-produced approaches to developing and testing approaches to loneliness interventions can draw on this experiential knowledge.
Copyright: © 2023 Birken et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.