The Epidemic of Loneliness and its Impact on Mental Health

The contents of this section have been compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


This article summarizes the latest research on the relationship between loneliness and mental health as reported by Markham Reid and various other researchers (see references at end of article). The latest research on loneliness indicates that its impact on mental health has been far greater than has often been assumed. As noted by Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory, University of Chicago):

Loneliness is an emerging public-health crisis” [as cited by Reid, 2019, p.16]

While this may surprise readers, UK’s Prime minister Theresa May appointed (a first in British and indeed world history) a “Minister for Loneliness”. There is clearly a recognition at the state level that loneliness is a major factor impacting mental and physical health. Often laypersons will attribute illness to factors such as lack of exercise, disrupted sleep, unbalanced diet, obesity, etc. However as noted by Dr. Kerstin Gerst Emerson (clinical assistant professor, College of Public Health, University of Georgia):

“All those [exercise, sleep, diet, etc.] are important, but loneliness is just as much or more important when it comes to mortality” [as cited by Reid, 2019, p.16]

Loneliness has become a world-wide phenomenon, as least according to data currently available to us – see for examples these examples:

  • US/North America: a recent Ipsos survey of more than 20,000 adult persons discovered that nearly half of these report that they are experiencing loneliness.
  • Asia: according to a 2008 study, rates of loneliness doubled in 1992-2008, from 16% to 30 %.

Loneliness is no longer a phenomenon primarily confined to seniors in old homes and/or health support institutions. A 2015 study by the University of Georgia which surveyed persons aged 60+ (not residing in health-care facilities and/or old homes) found that 57% of them experienced strong feelings of loneliness. As noted by Reid:

“More research has found that adolescents may be at even greater risk for loneliness than adults and that roughly 1 in 10 report feeling socially isolated. … But while many people recognize loneliness as a problem, few realize the severity of its effects on a person’s mental and physical health … Loneliness is on par with obesity in terms of its impact on a person’s risk of death” [2019, p.16-18]

Reid’s observation is of special significance, especially for those of us who support the diverse student population in counselling and a variety of other student support services in post-secondary environments. The research is certainly notable, especially with respect to the impact of loneliness on a person’s well-being. A research study from Brigham Young University for example, has discovered that loneliness is linked to a 26% rise in mortality risk factors.  Along with mental health, loneliness also can seriously impair a person’s physical health as well – Reid notes that loneliness is also linked with cardiovascular and hypertension problems as well as diabetes (Reid, 2019, p.18).

What the scientific evidence had yielded so far is that loneliness causes inflammation in the body which by itself can lead to a variety of health challenges as discussed earlier. In addition to inflammation, the “loneliness response” can trigger a variety of stress-related neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and cortisol. The brain’s neural pathways, which are highly plastic (they are always being “rewired” throughout our lifetime as a result of new thoughts, experiences, emotions, etc.) are affected by the experience and the feelings of loneliness. This explains the specific links between mental health issues and loneliness. Put simply: loneliness can lead to serious mental health issues such as elevated stress and anxiety, depression and self-harm among younger persons, such as students in a college-university. In time these same mental health issues can affect a person’s physical health in the short-term (i.e. colds, flu, infections, etc.)   and long-term (i.e. cardiac issues, diabetes, etc.).

Scientific links have been found between depression, loneliness and amount of use of social media/wifi-based platforms. An interesting 2017 study by Yağmur Çerkez and Dönay Kara published in the European Journal of Education Studies can be quoted as follows:

“…correlation analysis result performed in order to study the relationship  between the use of the social media and depression levels, a significant level of relationship was observed between two variables … the research includes the loneliness and depression factors … relationship between the psychological factors and the social networks…” (2017, pp. 84, 87).

These results are consistent with an earlier 2013 study by Çetin Tan, Mustafa Pamuk, and Ayenur Dondur reported in the journal Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. As noted by the researchers:

“Results revealed that loneliness was significantly associated with problematic mobile phone use” (Çetin, Pamuk & Dondur, 2013, p.606).

It would appear that a consistent pattern that has been emerging in the field of factors pertaining to mental health is the unbalanced use of social media/wifi-platforms among university level students. While we are not implying direct causality between loneliness and social media usage, the relationships between these factors is significant. In the complex world that young university students are now navigating, this is but one of many myriad factors to consider in counselling support.


Çerkez, Y., & Kara, D. (2017). Investigating the relationship between university students’ use of social media, loneliness and depression. European Journal of Education Studies, Volume 3 (issue 2), pp.80-90.

Reid, M. (2018). The loneliness epidemic. Time Special Edition: Mental Health A New Understanding, Fall, pp. 28-31.

Tan, Ç., Pamuk, M., & Dondur, A. (2013). Loneliness and mobile phone. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 103, pp.606-611.

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