Loneliness: Research targeting a growing public health crisis

Emerging as a serious public health concern across the world, loneliness is defined as an unpleasant emotional state characterised by feeling a lack of connection to other people and a desire for more fulfilling social relationships.

It has been linked to significant health issues, including a substantially increased risk of mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, substance misuse, internet addiction and suicide, plus physical health problems such as cardiovascular issues and a significantly increased risk of dying prematurely.

Some researchers have described it as a looming public health epidemic — especially among young people.

A Curtin University project is tackling the problem head-on by developing a targeted, individual approach to treatment, which has seen the Raine Medical Research Foundation award it a prestigious Raine Grant, with funding support from the Brightspark Foundation, Charter Hall, and Cockell Bequest.

Study lead and clinical psychologist Dr David Preece from the Curtin enAble Institute and School of Population Health said there is often a misconception about who is most impacted by loneliness.

“It’s sometimes stereotyped as an issue for older adults, but loneliness affects people of all ages and is in fact most prevalent in young people aged 16 to 25,” Dr Preece said.

“Even before COVID-19, around one in three young Australians were experiencing chronic or severe loneliness.”

Dr Preece said there were many reasons people may experience loneliness, ranging from a lack of opportunities for meaningful social contact due to limited social networks, difficulties in social skills making it challenging to form close, fulfilling relationships, or a lack of strategies to regulate emotions.

“One or a combination of these factors may be behind someone’s loneliness — as such, it’s important interventions target the causes most relevant to the individual.”

The research team will develop a new questionnaire to better assess and identify different types and causes of loneliness in 16 to 25-year olds.

They will then assign participants one of several specific treatment modules to target the most relevant mechanisms for the participant’s loneliness.

“Precision health has been widely and successfully applied to other health issues,” Dr Preece said.
“This approach recognises that not everyone has a health issue for the same reasons, meaning the most effective treatments must be precisely targeted to the mechanisms most relevant for that individual.

“We are now harnessing this precision health approach to target loneliness, bridging clinical science and emotion science. We will create new, targeted, and highly accessible assessment and treatment tools which will be vitally important in combating loneliness moving forward.”