Loneliness is a common human experience. But the side-effects of loneliness can seriously impact your life when living with a mental illness.

What is loneliness and social isolation?

Loneliness is the feeling of being alone or separated from others. It is a common experience for people with or without a mental illness. 

Social isolation is a lack of regular social contact or interaction with family, friends, and colleagues. 

You do not need to live alone to feel lonely. For some, being surrounded by loved ones who do not share the same interests or values can also be isolating. 

It can be a lonely place if you have people in your life who: 

  • do not understand your mental illness,  
  • do not listen to what you’re going through, or 
  • judge you because of your mental illness.

For more information, see our webpage on Social inclusion and mental illness - How can I become more connected?

Is loneliness a mental illness?

Loneliness is not a mental illness. But the side-effects of loneliness and social isolation can seriously impact your life when living with a mental illness. 

It can impact your sleep and self-esteem. It can stop you telling people how you’re feeling. It can stop you accessing the support you need.

What causes loneliness and social isolation? 

Having no friends or being estranged from family leave many feeling alone.  

Stigma and discrimination because of a mental illness or disability make people more vulnerable to loneliness. As does exclusion from activities and opportunities because of your physical abilities.  

You might live in a community that does not reflect or understand you because of your race, religion, gender or sexual identity. It can be a lonely experience.   

Also, if you are discriminated against, it can be very isolating. For more information, see our webpage on discrimination and mental health. 

Sudden significant and shocking moments in life that change your circumstances have the power to make you feel lonely: 

  • A bereavement 
  • Becoming a parent  
  • Losing your job 
  • A relationship break-up
  • Losing your home 
  • A mental health diagnosis 

Huge life stages can bring on social isolation when you are taken away from the people in your life:  

  • Retirement 
  • Changing jobs  
  • Starting university  
  • Moving to a new area  

National holidays and events can be overwhelming. They break up routines and, if you do not participate in them for personal or cultural reasons, can feel alienating:  

  • Christmas 
  • Birthdays 
  • Valentine’s Day  
  • Mother’s Day and Father’s Day 

What are the health risks and long-term effects of loneliness and social isolation?  

Research by the British Medical Association says long-term loneliness and social isolation can lead to physical health issues. It has been connected to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, obesity and stroke. 

Smoking, limited exercise, excessive drinking, and poor sleep have been linked to loneliness.  They can further increase the risk of serious health conditions. 

Can a person develop mental illnesses due to loneliness?  

Research from Gov.uk found people who say they are lonely are more at risk of experiencing depression. Also, people who live with depression are more at risk of becoming lonely. 

Feeling lonely and having challenges with your mental health share similarities. They may:  

  • Stop you trying new things 
  • Stop you going to social events  
  • Make you feel like a burden to others 
  • Stop you participating in group activities 
  • Make you worry about engaging with others 

It is therefore important for your wellbeing to take the steps to deal with the feeling of loneliness. 

How do I deal with loneliness and isolation?

Try to be kind to yourself. Loneliness is something many of us go through. It is a common human experience and not a reflection of who you are as a person. 

If you live with a mental illness and you feel lonely, making connections is not always easy. But it can help to:  

  • Tell someone you trust how you’re feeling  
  • Use social media or video calls in a safe way to chat to others 
  • Attend an online workshop or course to meet like-minded people 
  • Talk to your GP about local peer-support groups and talking therapies 
  • Reconnect with friends or family over text message, phone call or writing a letter 

If your mental illness is leaving you isolated from others, it can be useful to connect with the world in other ways:   

  • Spend time in nature 
  • Express yourself through writing or art  
  • Volunteer for a local charity organisation  
  • Start conversations with people in your community  
  • If you can, take up a hobby that will get you out of the house 

For more information, see our webpage on Social inclusion and mental illness - How can I become more connected?

© Rethink Mental Illness 2023

Last updated October 2023
Next update October 2024

Version number 1

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