Loneliness: Risk and Protective Factors
According to Michael Flood’s report (2005) titled ‘Loneliness in Australia’, the following facts are relevant about loneliness:
- Men of all ages are more likely to suffer from loneliness;
- Among men between the ages of 25-44 and who live alone, they report significantly lower levels of support and friendship than men who live with others. Interestingly the same is not the case for women.
- Men rely on their wives or partners for social and emotional needs. Women generally have a broader social network to draw upon to meet their needs.
- Single mothers with children report the highest levels of loneliness among women respondents.
- Divorced or separated men experience the same levels of loneliness as other men who live alone.
- Divorced or separated women particularly by one year afterwards, indicate the same levels of loneliness as other women who have not been through separation or divorce. Women have greater social and emotional networks and contacts than men.
- Men rely much more on paid employment as a source to provide personal support and friendship. As paid employment increases for men, so does personal support and friendships.
- Women who live alone do find increased support and friendship through work irregardless of the amount of hours worked.
- Both men and women single or otherwise experience increased loneliness during financial hardship and if they lose their paid employment.
- About one third of men living alone stated that they ‘often feel very lonely’
- About one quarter of lone fathers with children stated they ‘often feel very lonely’
- 13% of men in childless couple families also stated they ‘often feel very lonely’
- This pattern of ‘often feeling very lonely’ is also similar in women.
- Men who live alone are often confronted by unsociable neighbourhoods (low level of neighbourhood cooperation and interaction) and they have poorer physical, emotional and mental health.
Below we identify some of the risk factors and protective factors that are related to loneliness and depression as identified in the literature.
Summary of Risk and Protective Factors
Environmental and Social:
- Social disadvantage (poverty, unemployment, member of marginalised group (e.g. gay and lesbian communities)
- Family discord (relationship break-up, conflict, poor parenting practices)
- Parental mental illness
- Child abuse (physical/sexual, neglect)
- Exposure to adverse life events (bereavements, family separation, trauma, family illness)
- Caring for someone with a chronic physical or mental disorder
- For older adults, being in residential care
Biological and Psychological:
- Parental mental disorder and family history of depression
- Being a female adolescent (more recently a male)
- High trait anxiety and pre-existing anxiety disorders, substance abuse, conduct disorder
- Temperament – reacting negatively to stressors, and personality trait of neuroticism
- Negative thought patterns (pessimism, learned helplessness)
- Avoidant coping style
Environmental and Social:
- Good interpersonal relationships (supportive relationship with at least one person/parent, perceived social support)
- Community tolerance of difference and diversity
- Family cohesion (positive parent-child relations
- Social connectedness
- Academic/sporting achievements
Biological and Psychological:
- Easy-going temperament
- Optimistic thought patterns
- Effective coping skills repertoire (social skills, problem-solving skills
Loneliness, depression and suicide are often associated with one another. The statistics in Australia and elsewhere are interesting as there appears to be a degree of ambiguity between data for depression and data for suicides. It is interesting to note that women over 18 years report symptoms of depression far more than men. Yet episodes of suicide in all age groups from early adolescence are far higher in men than in women.
Why is this so? It is suggested that men do not seek medical help nearly as much as women do and therefore episodes of men who may well be depressed but not seeking help is not reported. This is especially the case in rural and remote communities where men typically avoid seeking health care interventions. It may well be that men do suffer depression as much or maybe more than women but all we can do at this stage is speculate.
How do we use an effective tool to measure loneliness
Thank you and hope to learn from your organisation.
In this case, we need to focus less on measuring the “loneliness” as this is merely a construct. The best way to help anyone who is feeling lonely is to identify and work with the emotions and issues that loneliness brings. This is where the individual difference lies that makes counselling such cases a lot more effective.
For instance, ten people may all describe being lonely however, that may produce sadness in one person, anger in another, self-destructive behaviour in another, and so on. The issues surrounding the loneliness would differ as well. For example, issues from being rejected in childhood, recent family/relationship breakdown, poor social skills.
So when we explore what loneliness means to the individual, it is only then that we can truly identify what we can do to help. It is also important to remember that regardless of whether loneliness is making a person a little sad or clinically depressed, each person is still seeking help with a problem.
A solution-focussed approach can sometimes negate the need for a measure at all, rather the counsellor will be focussing on how to get from the “lonely” state (and all the emotions and issues it brings with it) to a state that the person is happier with.