The feeling of loneliness is one that many are familiar with. Whether for a short period of time or an extended one, most individuals have experienced some degree of loneliness in their lifetime. Feeling lonely is different from being alone. When someone is alone, this means that they are physically the only person in their space. When someone feels lonely, it doesn’t necessarily matter how many people are or are not in the room with them. According to a 2018 national survey by Cigna, loneliness levels are higher than ever, with nearly half of individuals reporting they sometimes or always feel alone.
When it comes to mental health, feelings of loneliness can mean a great deal. Feeling alone can be a sign or symptom of an existing mental health condition or it can be a precursor to something more serious, like depression. Loneliness and mental health are very closely related, often crossing paths.
Extended loneliness, sometimes referred to as chronic loneliness, can feel unrelenting and isolating. Some of the common signs of chronic loneliness include:
Lack of Substantial Relationships – A person who feels alone may feel as though they struggle to form meaningful relationships with people that they care about where they exchange feelings, emotions, and experiences.
Lack of Understanding – Loneliness has a way of making someone feel like no one understands them, even if there are people that do. Those managing mental health conditions might struggle to feel like the people who try to connect with them are not able to understand them on a real or deep level.
Isolation – Loneliness can feel isolating. For an individual experiencing it, it can feel as though they are on their own to figure out their issues, even if there are people actively trying to assist them.
Low Self-Worth – For those that feel that no one understands them or is there for them, self-esteem and self-worth join the equation. They may start to struggle with the way they perceive themselves, feeling like they are failing or not reaching their goals.
Fatigue – Someone who feels lonely all of the time might also struggle with feelings of being tired.
Loneliness and Mental Health
Each symptom above can be linked to a symptom someone might feel if they are struggling with a mental health condition. For example, according to Mayo Clinic, individuals with depression experience symptoms including:
Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness, or hopelessness
Feelings of anger
Loss of interest or pulsar in normal activities
Reduced or increased appetite
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, self-blame
Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts
As you can see, symptoms like feelings of sadness or worthlessness tie directly into loneliness and how someone who is lonely might feel. It is important to recognize the close relationship that loneliness and mental health have.
Someone who has been battling feelings of loneliness that seems unrelenting or chronic should seek out the attention of a mental health provider.
Who Experiences Chronic Loneliness?
Anyone can experience loneliness. Those that are experiencing chronic loneliness might be experiencing it as a symptom of a larger mental health condition that needs to be addressed. Mental health conditions/experiences that have feelings of loneliness listed as a symptom include:
Major Depressive Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
The Risks of Loneliness:
Extended feelings of loneliness can be isolating and damaging. Over time, the risk of avoiding mental health services grows as an individual feels that there is no one in the world capable of understanding or helping them. This puts that individual at a much higher risk of developing a mental health condition down the line.
How Can Providers Help Combat Loneliness in Patient Populations?
Educate – Educate individuals on the symptoms of loneliness and how important it is to receive care if one is experiencing it.
Access – Increase access to mental health services so that individuals have a clear and accessible path to care. Telehealth is a great tool to offer patients a convenient and secure way to meet with a mental health provider.
Eliminate Barriers – Barriers to mental health care include things like access, cost, and mental health stigma. Providers can integrate digital tools into their practice that simplify access to care and increase price transparency while giving them the resources they need to offer top-of-the-line care.