Research exploring the stigma associated with loneliness
An evidence review and qualitative research (interviews and a diary study) were used to explore the stigma associated with loneliness, and what can be done to overcome it.
About the study
A key objective of the government’s tackling loneliness strategy is to reduce the stigma associated with loneliness so that people feel better equipped to talk about their social wellbeing. However, there was a knowledge gap in our understanding of the relationship between stigma and loneliness. Therefore, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) commissioned NatCen to conduct a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) to explore:
- The existence of loneliness stigma;
- The relationship between stigma and loneliness, including whether some groups are more likely to experience loneliness stigma;
- The impact of loneliness stigma; and
- What works in tackling loneliness stigma
Building on this, DCMS commissioned NatCen and RSM UK Consulting to conduct qualitative research (interviews and a diary study) to further understand how stigma is experienced across the life course. The research explored:
- Understandings and expressions of loneliness;
- Barriers that prevent people from taking actions to overcome their loneliness;
- How these issues are experienced across different population groups;
- The experience of loneliness stigma; and
- Strategies for reducing this stigma
Our qualitative research found that sharing feelings of loneliness can help people feel less alone and more able to manage their experience. However, people experiencing loneliness face a number of barriers to sharing their feelings, including:
- Past negative or unhelpful responses received when sharing feelings;
- Fear of how others might react, including concerns about being judged, pitied or perceived differently;
- Fear of burdening others, particularly for those who identified some form of care and support responsibility (e.g. for family or friends); and
- Lack of opportunity or means to discuss loneliness.
Some people do hold stigmatising views of loneliness. However, these are not universal. In the qualitative research, some participants (who were and were not experiencing loneliness) perceived that loneliness in others could be caused by individual traits and actions, such as low confidence and self-isolation. However, these opinions were generally presented with sensitivity and understanding (e.g. an understanding that some people may self-isolate due to health issues). Only in some cases did these opinions lead to responsibility being ascribed to those experiencing loneliness. Some people experiencing loneliness had received negative responses when sharing their feelings which could be considered stigmatising (e.g. jokes being made or responses assuming blame). However, many responses considered unhelpful (e.g. “glossing over” feelings) were not necessarily suggestive of negative beliefs around loneliness but may relate to wider issues such as a general lack of language around loneliness.
People experiencing loneliness perceive a social stigma, with participants suggesting that those who feel lonely are seen as “odd”, “sad” or blamed for their experience. Some people experiencing loneliness felt that the stigma they perceived was driven by a societal lack of understanding about who experiences loneliness and what causes it. For example, both young people and new parents felt that their experiences of loneliness were dismissed (or not recognised at all) due to assumptions that their needs for social connection were met by those around them. While participants in the qualitative research tended to perceive that loneliness could be experienced at any age, one perspective was that older people might experience a more severe form of loneliness due to having fewer opportunities for connection.
Some people experiencing loneliness conceal their experiences due to embarrassment or shame, driven by self-blame or feeling that they “shouldn’t” be lonely. As well as having concerns about what others might think, interviewees worried that sharing would make them internally feel “needy” or vulnerable.
This research indicates that the following actions would help reduce loneliness stigma:
- Use of national campaigns to normalise loneliness would help those experiencing it to feel part of the majority, rather than the minority. It is recommended that campaign design recognises a diverse range of experiences of loneliness and reframes loneliness to remove some of the negative connotations.
- Taking more direct steps to support people to discuss experiences of loneliness could mitigate the impacts of loneliness stigma (e.g. encouraging group discussions around experiences of loneliness, giving people to tools to discuss loneliness and signposting to loneliness-specific services).
- A number of enablers could support organisations to address loneliness stigma. In particular considering the language around loneliness (e.g. avoiding negative words like ‘tackle” and using inclusive terminology, with more positive terms such as “connecting,” and “building relationships”) and collaborating with partner organisations who work “on the ground” (to ensure year-round messaging which considers diverse lived experience).
The report draws on findings from:
- Six interviews with professionals with experience tackling loneliness stigma.
- Forty in-depth interviews and diaries completed by participants experiencing loneliness regularly. These participants were recruited based on their age/life stage (young adults (age 16-30); parents of young children (age 27-35); middle-aged (age 40-60); retired people age 65+).
- Three focus groups with participants with little or no recent experience of loneliness to explore wider societal understandings of loneliness. Each focus group contained participants from one age group (16-34; 35-64; 65+).