Loneliness a Growing Mental Health Concern as Pandemic Continues, UArizona Health Sciences Researchers Say

Dec 9, 2020

TUCSON, Ariz. — As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the United States, so do reports of increasing loneliness, depression and suicidal ideations, according to the results of a new study by University of Arizona Health Sciences researchers.

William “Scott” Killgore, PhD, studied how levels of loneliness changed from April to September. Research led by William "Scott" Killgore, PhD, professor of psychiatry in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and director of the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, found that loneliness appears to have increased over the course of the pandemic for the country as a whole, regardless of lockdown status, and was particularly severe for those under lockdown restrictions.

“Loneliness is a hunger for social closeness with others,” Dr. Killgore said. “People are feeling more and more lonely as the pandemic drags on. We need others, but lockdowns and restrictions are keeping us apart and that hunger for closeness keeps growing. This could be particularly problematic during the holidays, as greater loneliness could affect people’s decisions to disregard public health guidelines and seek out closeness with family or friends, even when it is inadvisable. Just like when a person is starved for food, they are willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy that hunger.”

The results of the study were recently published as peer-reviewed correspondence in the journal Psychiatry Research.

Over the course of six months, the research team interviewed 6,186 adults from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Every month from April through September, roughly 1,000 participants answered a series of questions online through the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform.

“These two questionnaires – the UCLA Loneliness Scale-3 and the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 – are some of the most widely used and well validated measures of loneliness, depression and suicidal thinking available,” Dr. Killgore said.

On an 80-point scale, a score of 47 or higher was considered a higher-than-average level of loneliness. The percentage of participants who scored in the high loneliness range increased significantly throughout the six months, particularly for those who were under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. By September, 64% of those who reported being under lockdown scored in the high loneliness range, compared to 48% of those who reported they were living without such restrictions.

Additionally, loneliness was positively correlated with greater depression and suicidal thinking.

The findings about loneliness are aligned with other reports indicating people are experiencing a mental health crisis, and that loneliness is strongly correlated with heart disease, stroke, dementia, anxiety, depression, hospital visits, suicide and all-cause mortality.

“Loneliness is a profound mental health issue that has progressively worsened with each passing month of the pandemic,” Dr. Killgore said. “Government leaders, policy makers and we, as a mental health community, need to consider the psychiatric and physical consequences of loneliness and social isolation as we chart the next phases of the immediate public health response and plan for the long-term recovery from the effects of COVID-19.”

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About the University of Arizona Department of Psychiatry
The Department of Psychiatry, founded in 1967 as one of the original departments in the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, excels in enhancing behavioral health through scientific research, education, training, community leadership, and service. Dedicated to compassionate, community-based mental health services, the department is leading efforts to comprehensively approach psychiatric disorders, prepare future clinicians, prevent psychiatric disorders, help guide community efforts for improving behavioral health, and provide state-of-the-art care that meets the needs of our communities and promotes social justice. Through the University's partnership with Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the country, the department is leading the way in psychiatric medicine. For more information, visit psychiatry.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Instagram | YouTube).

About the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson
The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is shaping the future of medicine through state-of-the-art medical education programs, groundbreaking research and advancements in patient care in Arizona and beyond. Founded in 1967, the college boasts more than 50 years of innovation, ranking among the top medical schools in the nation for research and primary care. Through the university's partnership with Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the country, the college is leading the way in academic medicine. For more information, visit medicine.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn).

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

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