Home Mental Health & Well-Being Pandemic Increases Emotional Loneliness with Lasting Impact, Study Finds

Pandemic Increases Emotional Loneliness with Lasting Impact, Study Finds

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The Covid pandemic has undeniably transformed the world in countless ways, with its far-reaching impacts penetrating the core of human social interaction and mental well-being.

A recent longitudinal study conducted in Slovenia, published in the journal Medicina, sheds light on these profound effects, particularly focusing on aspects of well-being, emotional and social loneliness, and suicidal behaviour.

Vita Poštuvan, PhD, the lead author of the study and a researcher from the University of Primorska, provides invaluable insights into the research process and its findings. She said, “We explored the concepts related to suicidal ideation, loneliness, and psychological well-being before, during, and after the pandemic in the same representative cohort.”

The study, spearheaded by researchers from the Slovene Centre for Suicide Research and the University of Primorska, employed a representative sample of 440 Slovenian adults who were monitored across four different time points: pre-pandemic (2019), during (2021), and post-pandemic (2022 and 2023). This methodical approach allowed for an in-depth analysis of the pandemic’s impact over time.

The results are telling. Both emotional and social loneliness witnessed a significant increase during the pandemic. Emotional loneliness, relating to the quality of relationships, showed a particularly stark rise with no subsequent decrease, suggesting a deep-seated impact on how individuals perceive their closest relationships. Poštuvan added: “When we analysed the data, we were surprised by the results: there was a significant increase in emotional and social loneliness during the pandemic, which did not change again after the pandemic ended.”

Interestingly, while social loneliness, associated with the quantity of social interactions, initially increased, it showed a decline in 2022, indicating a potential recovery in social networks as pandemic restrictions eased. But this recovery was not mirrored in emotional loneliness, which pertains to the perceived quality of these relationships. Poštuvan reflects on this aspect, saying: “What’s more, emotional loneliness actually increased. Our study is not the first to point to such changes, but there are not many that provide such longitudinal data.”

The study also reveals intriguing patterns in general well-being. A noticeable increase in well-being was observed post-pandemic, possibly reflecting a collective sigh of relief as life gradually returned to normalcy. However, this improvement was short-lived; by 2023, levels of well-being dipped again, aligning closely with pre-pandemic figures. “What the data shows is what people say anecdotally: that life is different now than it was before the pandemic,” observes Dr. Poštuvan.

This fluctuation suggests a complex relationship between external circumstances and internal mental states, where initial resilience may give way to longer-term challenges in mental health.

Contrary to expectations, the study found no significant changes in suicidal ideation or behaviour throughout the pandemic. This finding stands in contrast to the heightened levels of loneliness and fluctuating well-being, indicating that while the pandemic affected mental health in various ways, it did not necessarily escalate suicidal tendencies in the general population.

These findings illuminate the nuanced ways in which the Covid pandemic has affected mental health. The persistent increase in emotional loneliness could signify a deeper societal issue related to the quality of intimate relationships and social connections. Poštuvan emphasises the need for societal changes, stating: “The results imply that we need to focus more on creating better-connected societies if we want to prevent the pandemic of loneliness. There are no universal preventive strategies for that yet.”

The study’s authors suggest that the pandemic may have brought underlying issues in intimate relationships to the surface, exacerbated by prolonged periods of close contact during lockdowns. This situation potentially exposed and intensified existing tensions, leading to a sustained sense of emotional isolation.

The study underscores the importance of addressing loneliness as a critical public health issue. Poštuvan plans to delve deeper into this matter, saying: “Our plan is to investigate these findings using qualitative methods to not only explain but also understand these changes in people’s everyday experiences.”

Given the profound impact of emotional loneliness on overall mental health, there is a pressing need for targeted interventions and policies. These should focus not just on enhancing social networks but also on improving the quality of interpersonal relationships.

Mental health services and public health campaigns should aim to increase awareness about loneliness and its impact, encouraging proactive measures to build and maintain meaningful connections.

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