Loneliness during lockdown is one of the most universal afflictions – when researchers studied young adults in the US, they found “alarming” levels of COVID-19 depression
While the mental health impact of being at home constantly has been discussed widely, for the ageing population and those who are quarantined alone, the psychological situation of young adults is one that doesn’t have as much attention.
Lead author Professor Viviana Horigian, from the University of Miami, said: “The convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the loneliness and addiction epidemics in the US is here to stay.
“These young adults are the future of our nation’s social fabric. They need to be given access to psychological help, coupled with the development and dissemination of brief online contact-based interventions that encourage healthy lifestyles.
“Addressing mental health and substance use problems in young adults, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, is an imperative.”
Why do research on the loneliness of a generation?
The research, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, show that “alarming” levels of loneliness are associated with significant mental health issues, with around 61% of respondents reporting moderate (45%) to severe (17%) anxiety. Meanwhile, 30% of interviewees disclosed harmful levels of drinking. And, although only 22% of the respondents reported using drugs, 38% of these reported severe drug use.
The ages of the respondents were over 23, with the average being 28.
Co-author Renae Schmidt further commented on loneliness in lockdown: “As we invest in developing the sense of cohesion and social connectedness in these generations, we can address social and physical resiliency in our communities at large.
“Students need sustaining online delivery of [relevant] coursework, increasing counseling services, and deploying outreach through telehealth services. For young adults not engaged in school, aggressive patient outreach by primary care physicians should be used to ensure screening and intervention, also via telehealth.
“Access to psychological help coupled with the development and dissemination of brief online contact-based interventions that encourage healthy lifestyles.”
The stark findings of this online experiment
Each symptom (loneliness, anxiety, depression, alcohol use, drug use) was measured against internationally recognised scoring systems.
To examine the associations between loneliness during lockdown and the mental health conditions highlighted, the researchers used a model which looked at the direct effects of both loneliness and social connectedness on depression, anxiety, alcohol use, and drug use. They also looked at the indirect effects of loneliness and social connectedness on alcohol and drug use working through anxiety and depression. In addition, they characterized relationships in pre-COVID and post-COVID behaviours and psychosocial symptomatology.
The results show that most participants who reported an increase in feelings of loneliness also indicated an increase in drinking (58%), drug use (56%), anxiety (76%), and depression (78%), and a decrease in feelings of connectedness (58%).
Looking at general increases of mental health issues or substance use due to the pandemic, most issues were recorded by participants as rising, with their feelings of loneliness going up by 65%, lack of connectedness 53%, alcohol use 48%, drug use 44%, anxiety 62%, and depression 64%.
What does this mean for the future of mental health?
“Social prescribing, which draws from and promotes usage of community resources, also shows promise of improving social and psychological wellbeing,” Professor Horigian said.
“This could be positioned to then encourage service to others, bringing social comfort and reward as a result of connecting with others in need.
“These efforts, and others, can help to alleviate the problems of loneliness and its manifestations; yet it may take an integrated, multi-faceted, and concerted approach, rooted, and supported by mental health prevention and wellbeing promotion boosted by workforce development and research on intervention development, to readdress these trajectories.”