Living Alone May Increase Mental Health Risk, Study

A new study has revealed that living alone is linked to common mental disorders (CMDs) such as mood disorders, anxiety, and substance use disorders. As per some studies, almost one-third of people will experience a CMD in their lifetime. As CMDs impact not just the individual but the society as well due to their high prevalence, scientists want to comprehend all the risk factors for mental illness.

Over the past few years, researchers have been exploring whether living alone might be one such risk factor. A new study published in the journal PLOS One concludes that there is a link between living alone and CMDs. The findings also reveal that it affects all age groups and genders, and that loneliness is the predominant driver. The authors of the new study aimed to fill in the gaps in the previous studies sought links between living alone and CMDs in general, rather than focusing on just one mental condition like depression, etc. and they examined which factors seemed to be influencing the relationship.

For the study, the scientists from the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France analyzed data comprising 20,503 adults, ages 16 – 74, living in England. The three National Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys conducted in 1993, 2000, and 2007 provided the data on a range of variables, including height and weight, level of education, employment status, alcohol and drug use, social support, and feelings of loneliness, for the study. The study participants were asked to complete Clinical Interview Schedule-Revised questionnaires, to assess if they had experienced any neurotic symptoms during the previous week.

Not only did the authors find the number of people living alone having steadily grown with 8.8% in1993, 9.8% in 2000, and 10.7% in 2007, their analysis also demonstrated that across all age groups and genders, there was a substantial correlation between living alone and having a CMD. The size of this relationship was fairly alike across all three surveys. CMDs were more common in those living alone than those not living alone—in 1993 it was 19.9% in those living alone vs. 13.6% in those not living alone; in 2000, 23.2% vs. 15.5%; and in 2007, 24.7% vs. 15.4%.

When the scientists probed deeper into the association between CMDs and living alone, they found that loneliness explained 84% of it. As mental health problems are a growing concern, the understanding of the risk factors associated with CMDs might help reverse the trend. Unlike those who live alone but don’t feel lonely, the ones who do, may seek interventions such as talking therapies, social care provisions, and animal-based interventions, to deal with loneliness.

The authors acknowledge that the study has certain limitations. For instance, it was a cross-sectional study, that is, it looked at a glimpse of people at one point in time. Therefore, longitudinal studies are required to establish how this relationship might play out over time. Further, the study could not assess the cause-and-effect relation between the two variables.

Therefore, it was not possible to find out through this study whether a person developed a CMD ‘because’ he or she lived alone, or whether he or she developed a CMD and ‘then’ decided to live alone. Also, probably, an individual with a predisposition for CMDs is more likely to want living alone. Apparently, more studies need to be conducted to fill in these gaps.

While earlier studies showed loneliness to be linked with depression and anxiety and therefore, back up the results of this study, the new findings go a few steps further in showing that the relationship between mental health and living alone is stable across time, that the link is not restricted to older adults, and that loneliness plays a key role.