Scientists find link between loneliness and mental health problems

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In a revealing study, researchers have discovered a significant link between loneliness and an increased risk of serious mental health issues such as depression, psychosis, and bipolar disorders.

Associate Professor Rubén Rodríguez-Cano from the Department of Psychology at NTNU, who led the research, highlighted that individuals who feel lonely are more likely to encounter these mental health challenges than those who do not feel lonely.

Published in BJPsych Open, the study sought to explore the relationship between loneliness and the development of mental health problems.

One of the key questions it aimed to address was whether loneliness leads to mental health issues or whether existing mental health conditions contribute to feelings of loneliness. The findings suggest that the relationship could be bidirectional.

Rodríguez-Cano explained that through tracking the progression from adolescence to adulthood, it became evident that those diagnosed with psychotic and bipolar disorders tended to feel increasingly isolated post-adolescence.

Although the study couldn’t definitively establish causality, the correlation was clear and persisted over the long term.

The study differentiated between being alone and feeling lonely, noting that while some individuals are content in solitude, loneliness can significantly impact mental health.

Rodríguez-Cano pointed out that young people experiencing the onset of mental illnesses might find their social relationships deteriorating, which in turn intensifies their sense of isolation and potentially worsens their mental health condition.

Additionally, loneliness can diminish self-esteem, which may further entrench feelings of isolation and increase the risk of developing mental health disorders later in life.

Researchers utilized data from the “Young in Norway” study, an extensive longitudinal project that began in 1992.

This study has followed thousands of individuals who were teenagers in the 1990s to understand how their lives have unfolded over more than two decades. The analysis also included data on medication use drawn from the Norwegian Prescription Database.

Interestingly, while a majority of the study’s participants, over 80%, did not receive any mental health medication during the observed period, about 12% were prescribed at least one type of psychotropic drug, and 7% required two or more types.

These figures represent almost 500 individuals who have grappled with significant mental health issues.

Given these findings, Rodríguez-Cano emphasized the importance of addressing loneliness during adolescence to prevent the onset of mental health problems.

He advocated for interventions by researchers, policymakers, and social stakeholders at both preventive and clinical levels to help young people feel more connected and supported.

This study underscores the critical need for community and social support systems designed to help individuals, particularly the youth, navigate social challenges and reduce the incidence of loneliness and its associated mental health risks.

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The research findings can be found in BJPsych Open.

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