Mental Health and Loneliness
In the third of our ‘Let’s talk about…’ EDI seminar series, in partnership with Cancer Research UK Barts Centre, our researchers covered ‘Mental Health and Loneliness’.
We heard from Professor Pamela Qualter, Professor of Psychology for Education at The University of Manchester.
Professor Pamela Qualter, Professor of Psychology for Education
Pamela covered mental health and loneliness in research including:
- Why social relationships matter
- Pamela’s career in mental health and loneliness
- What is loneliness?
- Loneliness and chronic illness
Why social relationships matter
Through her talk, Pamela discussed why social relationships matter, and that although we may require different amounts of social contact, as a species, we all need others for survival. She detailed how social relationships help us cope with stressors, and when we have an absence of social relationships, this causes impacts on both our physical and mental health.
Pamela discussed our evolutionary history and our interactions with each other to achieve our needs in survival and reproduction. In a biological sense, a lack of social interactions can mean being rejected from reproductive efforts, while in a survival sense, it can mean being excluded by members of our tribe which puts us at risk of external threats.
Additionally, Pamela talked about how our lives are enhanced by our close social bonds and how these social relationships appear to offer more than just protection against dangerous predators. For example, maintaining stable, close relationships with others of the same species increases longevity and contributes to better health.
Pamela’s career in mental health and loneliness
Pamela covered her career, which amongst other things, has explored what happens to young people when their need to belong is threatened and when they feel like they don’t quite ‘fit’. She has explored whether feeling disconnected is harmful, is the same for young people as it is for older people, whether it is a danger in the way we might expect, and whether there are personal characteristics that might predispose us to feelings of disconnections.
What is loneliness?
In her talk, Pamela stated: “The need to belong is powerful, such that when we feel it is threatened, we feel lonely …. we feel sad because there a discrepancy between the social relationships we have and those we want to have, whether that is in number or quality.”
Pamela continued to explain that loneliness is part of a biological warning system that has evolved to warn a person of threats or damage to their social body. She detailed that sociability is important for members of a social species and is needed for them to survive, prosper, and reproduce. So, as such, loneliness has been viewed as an evolutionary signal that one needs to re-connect with others (Cacioppo et al., 2006).
Loneliness and chronic illness
In this section of her talk, Pamela discussed how meta-analyses show that those with chronic conditions, including cancer, are on average somewhat lonelier than their peers without such conditions. She explained that this could be because chronic conditions such as these can take individuals away from their social networks.
Additionally, she explained that reduced energy levels and actual and self-imposed physical restrictions accompanying their illness may further prevent those with chronic conditions from engaging in social activities with family and friends.
Pamela concluded that recognising feelings of loneliness is important when treating those with chronic physical conditions because such feelings may have detrimental effects not only on their mental, but also on their physical well-being and recovery.
Discussion, with panel members Dr Joan Chang (MRC CDA Research Fellow and SBS Research Staff Representative, UoM) and Dr Mark Freestone (Reader in Mental Health and Director of Education, Wolfson Institute of Population Health, QMUL).
Given findings that those with chronic conditions, including those with cancer, are somewhat lonelier than their peers without such conditions, it is important to discuss the effect that chronic conditions like cancer can have on social interactions and satisfaction with social relationships. The psychological and social consequences of illness are important to discuss with patients as part of their treatment.
Take home messages
- Social relationships matter and we all need others for survival
- Maintaining stable, close relationships with others contributes to better health
- Loneliness can be viewed as an evolutionary signal that one needs to re-connect with others
- Those with chronic conditions, including cancer, are on average somewhat lonelier than their peers
- Recognising feelings of loneliness is important when treating those with chronic physical conditions