Coming home to an empty house can feel like a blessing. But if blissful alone time turns into feelings of prolonged loneliness, that empty house can become a curse, according to research published Wednesday in PLOS One. For 20,500 residents in the United Kingdom, living alone is associated with steep psychological costs for one major reason.
Based off of survey data collected by the British Government, lead study author Louis Jacob, Ph.D. of the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines explains that living alone was associated with significantly higher rates of mental disorder symptoms, including neuroticism. Whether people with neurotic symptoms prefer to live alone, or if the symptoms originate because of their residential status, is unclear from this paper. Still, Jacob’s team’s analysis yielded an interesting statistic that hints at the reason this connection exists in the first place: Eighty-four percent of the symptoms could be explained by reported loneliness.
“We believe that reducing levels of loneliness in people living alone is important,” Jacob tells Inverse.
Overall, Jacob’s findings are based on a diverse sample of UK residents between 16 and 64 years old who responded to surveys conducted in 1993, 2000, and 2007. These surveys revealed that the number of people who lived alone is relatively small but has been increasing. In 1993, 8.8 percent of respondents lived alone, but by 2007, that had increased to 10.7 percent of people. People who lived alone, the authors note, were more likely to be male, older, and unemployed.
Importantly, they found significant associations between that status and the prevalence of symptoms of mental disorders (not necessarily diagnosed disorders). Across all years, they report that people who lived alone had higher chances of reporting symptoms of common mental disorders. In 1993, people who lived alone were 69 percent more likely to report symptoms. In 2000, that likelihood decreased to 63 percent, but by 2007, they were back up to 88 percent more likely to report symptoms of a mental disorder.
Jacob notes that there were other mediating factors like alcohol and substance abuse that impacted this relationship, but of all the factors that contributed to the pattern, loneliness was the most statistically powerful. Crucially, he notes that loneliness isn’t necessarily caused by living alone: Instead, he proposes that people who feel lonely tend to feel so despite having plenty of social support around them, suggesting that loneliness is a state of mind, not a residential status.
“Interestingly, despite this finding on loneliness, social support explained the living alone-[common mental disorder] relationship to a much lesser extent (i.e., 17%),” he explains. “This may mean that the self-perception of social relationships is more important than actual social ties,” he says. “You may feel lonely, although you have a substantial social support.”
The UK has already acknowledged that the country may have a loneliness problem and appointed Tracey Crouch as the official minister of loneliness in January 2018. In October 2018, the UK proposed a strategy for tackling loneliness that devotes funds to creating more community spaces, housing changes, and sports programs.
Jacob, for one, adds that the best way to intervene in a cycle of loneliness is to promote social connections that make people feel supported, a goal that is echoed in the UK’s plan too. As examples, Jacob lists certain “psychological therapies, health and social care provision, and leisure/skill development.”
In other words, living alone may contribute to loneliness, but it will take more than a roommate to cure the lonely feelings of an entire nation. Instead, the trick is to make sure that people feel connected, no matter who they are — or aren’t — living with.
Abstract: Given the high prevalence of common mental disorders (CMDs) and individuals living alone in the United Kingdom, the goal of this study using English nationally representative data was to examine the association between living alone and CMDs, and to identify potential mediating factors of this association. The data were drawn from the 1993, 2000 and 2007 National Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys. CMDs were assessed using the Clinical Interview Schedule-Revised (CIS-R), a questionnaire focusing on past week neurotic symptoms. The presence of CMDs was defined as a CIS-R total score of 12 and above. Multivariable logistic regression and mediation analyses were conducted to analyze the association between liv- ing alone and CMDs, and to identify mediators in this association. The prevalence of CMDs was higher in individuals living alone than in those not living alone in all survey years. Multi- variable analysis showed a positive association between living alone and CMDs in all survey years (1993: odds ratio [OR] = 1.69; 2000: OR = 1.63; and 2007: OR = 1.88). Overall, loneli- ness explained 84% of the living alone-CMD association. Living alone was positively associ- ated with CMDs. Interventions addressing loneliness among individuals living alone may be particularly important for the mental wellbeing of this vulnerable population.