This blog was written by first-year UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD Student, Anna Hall, for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022. This year’s theme is on Loneliness.
There are few people who have never experienced loneliness, whether it was a brief feeling that naturally passed or a more chronic experience we had to work to overcome. In 2018, the BBC Loneliness Experiment found that, of all age groups in the UK, young people aged 16 to 24 years report feeling the loneliest. Loneliness is a distressing feeling, and chronic loneliness is associated with a range of physical and mental health conditions, including heart disease and depression. It is therefore important that we reduce these feelings in young people, and I was interested in understanding how we can best achieve this.
I had the exciting opportunity to work with Dr Alexandra Pitman who co-leads the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Network. As I became more familiar with existing research, it became clear that few loneliness interventions focus on young people in the general population. Those that do have varying effectiveness and young people are not very drawn to them. Given the high prevalence in this age group, I was struck by this lack of interventions and motivated to contribute to improvement.
We analysed data from 16 to 18 year olds who answered two questions regarding loneliness interventions in the BBC Loneliness Experiment. This was a large online international survey released in 2018 with wide media attention. This qualitative method of analysis, analysing free-text responses, was another element of the project which particularly excited me. I have always used quantitative methods in my research, using statistics to analyse numerical data, so I was interested to see what we can learn from qualitative methods. I quickly learnt that these methods are incredibly insightful!
We found that adolescents suggested strategies very similar to those currently employed in loneliness interventions, such as increasing social connections, changing the way they think about themselves and others, and improving social skills. However, many adolescents also described strategies to change how they experience solitude, including changing the way they think about spending time alone. As adults, we recognise that enjoying time alone is an important life skill. We may assume that this way of thinking is too mature for adolescents, but our study suggests otherwise. It may therefore be beneficial for interventions to incorporate strategies which highlight the distinction between spending time alone and feeling lonely, and provide adolescents with ways to enjoy solitude.
The findings from my project have not only been insightful in terms of helping to improve loneliness interventions but have also helped me to think more about the way we approach mental health research more broadly.
Whilst we were able to group the responses into four main categories, the specific details of responses varied. Every individual had their own ideas about what was helpful, and what was helpful for one person was specifically unhelpful for another. I therefore think that personalisation of interventions for loneliness may be beneficial. This is a huge challenge for researchers and clinicians as we are unclear exactly what works for who and why, and this is a complex question to answer. However, I believe it is an important goal if we are to develop effective interventions for loneliness and mental health difficulties.
We also found that some adolescents described hiding their true feelings of loneliness, possibly in fear of stigmatising views from others. As I learnt in my project, researchers are best able to understand loneliness and mental health by talking to the individuals we are trying to help. These individuals are also important in helping us design our studies and interpret results. However, many people may not feel comfortable talking about their experiences due to fear of stigmatising views. This presents a barrier to conducting applied research and developing effective interventions, and one that we must overcome.
Finally, this project taught me the importance of using different methods in mental health research. I completed my MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and have always been an advocate of brain imaging and statistics, believing that mental health research should always use numbers. From this project, I have learnt that qualitative methods are vital if we are to understand mental health. We get caught up in conducting good science and following our research ideas that we can forget we are ultimately mental health researchers aiming to help individuals who are lonely or struggling with mental illness. Qualitative methods allow us to better understand individuals’ experiences and explore what would help them. This is not to say that quantitative methods are not useful. Whilst it will be challenging, I believe that mental health research must adopt an interdisciplinary approach and combine methods to progress our understanding and improve care.
Being a part of the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD has meant that I am already surrounded by passionate researchers who are trying to tackle these challenges. I have been encouraged to undertake projects exploring topics and methods which I have no prior experience. Whilst the prospect initially seemed daunting, it has been hugely rewarding; I have been able to develop my skills and ideas and have been supported every step of the way. My previous enthusiasm for cognitive neuroscience has not waned but I am now considering how I can incorporate these new methods to complement my research ideas. We have also been lucky enough to gain clinical experience in mental health services around London, exposing me to the challenges faced by mental health services and patients trying to access support. This has been invaluable in encouraging me to consider how best to conduct research to benefit patients and contribute to public policy to improve service provision.
Above the professional aspects, the programme has bought me together with a cohort of inspiring researchers and new friends. A PhD can be a lonely experience. I am grateful to be part of a programme that fosters a supportive and friendly environment within the cohort and the wider academic community, and I am excited to meet everyone who joins us along the way.
Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) takes place every year during the second week of May, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. This MHAW will focus on raising awareness of the impact of loneliness on our mental wellbeing and the practical steps we can take to address it. Follow online via #MHAW2022 #IveBeenThere