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Loneliness and Mental Health Report UK

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

We all know what loneliness feels like and 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 and share the stories of nine people 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 and 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+

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

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.

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.

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.

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.3,4 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

Who experiences loneliness?

  • 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

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.

Do people understand loneliness?

To better understand what the public thinks about loneliness, we surveyed a nationally representative group of 6,000 adults in February and March 2022. We asked about their experiences and perceptions of loneliness.

  • 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.

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. We found that people understand some of the factors which tend to increase people’s risk of loneliness.

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.

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

We are calling on several UK-wide policy asks to address loneliness across society.

  • Taking a strategic approach to loneliness

  • Developing the community resources needed to tackle loneliness

  • Building a greener living environment that supports social contact

  • Supporting children and young people with interventions in education settings

  • Ensuring that everyone has access to digital communication technology, and the skills to use it, and respecting preferences for non-digital forms of communication

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