By Aiden Hannah, Research Analyst, Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions

Deloitte-uk-mental-uk

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness week, taking place between 9-15 May, is loneliness. A frequently cited statistic illustrates its stark impact on health, namely that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1 Chronic loneliness affected approximately six per cent of the population in 2020-21, with increasing evidence of a detrimental effect upon mental health.2 There is also a growing body of research that shows individuals can benefit from using digital approaches through establishing social connection in innovative ways. However, there is also evidence that suggests that aspects of some technologies, such as social media platforms, can exacerbate feelings of being alone, particularly for younger age groups. This week’s blog explores both the positive and negative impacts that technology can have on tackling this growing public health concern.3

Loneliness is a significant health problem

Mental Health Awareness week is organised by the Mental Health Foundation and is observed annually, aimed at increasing awareness of a range of mental health issues. Now in its 22nd year, the central focus this year is to highlight the effect of loneliness upon mental health.4

Forming connections with others and gaining a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need. Throughout the pandemic, lockdowns, social isolation, and other restrictions, and the stark change in how we live our lives, significantly exacerbated feelings of loneliness. The 2020-21 ‘Opinions and Life Survey’ found increasing levels of self-reported loneliness, which disproportionately affects certain populations such as individuals living with a disability or chronic illness.5 6 Research found that nearly one in four adults experienced loneliness due to the pandemic restrictions, and, while loneliness is known to significantly impact older populations of the community, this figure almost doubled amongst  18 - 24 year-olds, demonstrating the far-reaching impact it can have.7 Deloitte’s recent publication, Mental health and employers: The case for investment - pandemic and beyond, explores the disproportionate effect of the pandemic upon the mental health of certain demographics of working age adults, examining why this has been the case and exploring ways that employers are providing support.8 Furthermore, the links between loneliness and poor mental and physical health are indisputable. For example, loneliness is highly correlated to both depression and anxiety, and increased risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure.9 10

In February 2022, the UK government launched their third annual report on ‘Tacking Loneliness’.11 Despite pandemic restrictions lifting in the UK, the report acknowledges that many individuals may struggle to reconnect with others due to longer lasting effects of pandemic isolation, reinforcing the importance of continuing to combat loneliness.

Technology is connecting communities

As we have all experienced first-hand during the pandemic, digital technologies can be a true lifeline, allowing us to remotely connect with friends and family around the world. For example, video calls were used at least once a week by over 70 per cent of UK adults during lockdown, double the pre-pandemic rate.12  Although internet use by older adults is increasing, digital inclusion and equality of access to digital technologies across all populations remains an important societal issue.13 Furthermore, as many of us now return to in-person gatherings, it is important for us to consider groups of the population who may continue to struggle with social isolation, including older adults.

Some two million over 75-year-olds live alone in the UK, and approximately half of older adults feel that television is their primary source of company.14 15A number of charities provide targeted initiatives to combat loneliness. For example Age UK deliver a free volunteer-led telephone friendship service which supported over 8,800 over 60s in 2020-21.16 Age UK have also recognised the barriers to technology some individuals face, providing a variety of informational guides around topics such as staying safe online, downloading mobile applications, and using social media.17

Across a diverse demographic of users, social media platforms allow people to join virtual communities of individuals with shared interests and passions, promoting support and inclusion. In recent years, the number of online patient support groups has increased rapidly. From sharing and discussing emerging research on poorly understood conditions such as Long-COVID, to providing support and self-management advice for conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (as was discussed in our recent blog Improving awareness and understanding of Irritable Bowel Syndrome), these online groups can provide invaluable comfort and companionship during periods of isolation and illness.

Inappropriate use of technology can have a negative impact

Despite these clear advantages of digital connectedness, research has found that the impact that social media use can have on increasing feelings of loneliness varies by age group. An international study carried out during the pandemic found higher levels of loneliness to be associated with frequent use of multiple social media platforms in young adults (aged 18-39 years), while lower levels of loneliness were reported in older age groups who frequently used social media.18 Factors such as the variability in reasons for social media use and psycho-social factors are key considerations in this finding. Furthermore, younger adults may be more impacted by ‘social comparison’, compelled to compare themselves to others online, and may therefore present a digital identity that is an altered version of their true self.

Excessive use of online platforms may cause some individuals to disconnect from the real world around them. This raises important ethical issues when considering the future use of innovative technologies such as advanced robots that could provide care and social interaction to isolated individuals, or virtual reality technologies in health and care settings. The value of genuine offline human connection should not be ignored. Innovators, care providers and policy makers have ethical decisions to make, and the potential lower costs of these interventions when compared to human staffing should not be to the detriment of patient mental wellbeing.19

Conclusion

Mental Health Awareness week provides a much-needed prompt for us all to reflect on the loneliness that could be affecting groups of our communities or even some of our families and friends. It’s also important for us to consider the role that technology may be having on our own lives, and in the lives of those often under-served in our communities. While the significant advantages of technologies that connect us to each other are clear, the true value of these likely remain rooted in their value as a conduit to real human companionship. As our lives are more and more driven by digital relationships, how can we ensure that members of our community are not left behind? Small things can make a big difference, from speaking to a neighbour as you pass by, to asking a colleague about their hobbies. We can all play an important role in supporting the wellbeing of those around us.

 

LSHC blog 3 Dec author

Aiden Hannah, Research Analyst

Aiden has a background in physics and biomedical engineering, and a strong technical knowledge of diagnostics and digital healthcare. Most recently working as an academic researcher, he undertook a range of multidisciplinary projects involving close collaborations between MedTech companies and clinicians; supporting the development of novel biosensors and low-cost diagnostics, including clinical trial design and conduct. Aiden has focused on the health technology investment pipeline and the medical device regulatory processes as part of his doctorate industry placements.

Email | LinkedIn

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1https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness/
2https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/community-life-survey-202021-wellbeing-and-loneliness
3https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/threat-to-health/
4https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week
5https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/mappinglonelinessduringthecoronaviruspandemic/2021-04-07
6https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/community-life-survey-202021-wellbeing-and-loneliness
7https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/almost-a-quarter-of-adults-living-under-lockdown-in-the-uk-have-experienced-loneliness?msclkid=38fcaf8bd04c11ecbd0855e4e106a392
8https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/consultancy/deloitte-uk-mental-health-report-2022.pdf
9https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/loneliness-research-and-resources/loneliness-depression-and-anxiety-exploring-the-connection-to-mental-health/
10https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness/
11https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/loneliness-annual-report-the-third-year/tackling-loneliness-annual-report-february-2022-the-third-year
12https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2020/uk-internet-use-surges
13https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/loneliness-research-and-resources/loneliness-and-digital-inclusion/
14https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/adhocs/11446peoplelivingaloneaged65yearsoldandoverbyspecificagegroupandsexuk1996to2019
15https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/health--wellbeing/rb_june15_lonelines_in_later_life_evidence_review.pdf
16https://www.ageuk.org.uk/services/befriending-services/sign-up-for-telephone-befriending/
17https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/work-learning/technology-internet/
18https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20563051211033821
19https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/11/robot-carers-could-help-lonely-seniors-they-re-cheering-humans-up-already/?msclkid=5e5f3eb3d04e11ec954efadcc24ef1f8

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