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The invisible wound

23 June 2022
Volume 31 · Issue 12

Loneliness, an often neglected but critically important emotional state, was the theme of the 2022 Mental Health Foundation (MHF) awareness week last month (#IveBeenThere). At the beginning of the pandemic, 5% of UK adults reported feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’, or a similar proportion to 2016-2017. By February 2021, this had risen to 7.2%, representing 3.7 million adults (MHF, 2022a). After lockdown, 41% of adults in the UK across all age ranges and communities reported feeling lonelier since lockdown, with one-third feeling that their loneliness will get worse (British Red Cross, 2022).

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the MHF (2022b) published a report citing loneliness as a leading public health challenge of our time, with 1 in 4 adults affected. With no single cause or solution, it has been described as the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met. Research shows a clear link between loneliness and mental health issues, and the physical health effects appear to be comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Dyal and Valente, 2015). Negative health effects of loneliness include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, poor nutrition, vasoconstriction and an increased inflammatory response in the body. Another effect can be a rise in cortisol levels, which, if present over a prolonged period, can cause anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems and weight gain.

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