Above: Dr. Alan Teo, a psychiatrist at the VA Portland Health Care System, has studied loneliness as a factor in Veterans’ mental health. (Photo by Michael Moody)
This article originally appeared in VA Research Currents.
There has been a wealth of research on the ties between depression and loneliness. In fact, loneliness has been linked to depression perhaps more than any other psychiatric problem. The two are not synonymous, but they interact with one another.
But to what extent, if any, does loneliness contribute to depression in Veterans?
A VA-funded study has addressed that relatively unexplored question. The researchers tried to learn which facets of social connectedness, including loneliness, are linked the most to depression in former service members. Social connectedness refers to relationships and support networks and is vital to a person’s health and self-esteem.
Among five forms of social connectedness, loneliness was tied to the highest levels of depression and suicide ideation, or thoughts of committing suicide, the researchers found. Loneliness was also associated with the lowest levels of patient efforts to manage their health and to seek help.
Dr. Alan Teo, a psychiatrist at the VA Portland Health Care System, led the study, which appeared in the April 2018 Journal of Affective Disorders.
He explains that the project didn’t begin as an evaluation of loneliness as it relates to depression in Veterans, but that loneliness became the “takeaway message.”
“I wanted to do it from a perspective where almost nothing is known,” he says. “I looked at different facets of social connectedness to see which one sticks out as being the most important, or conversely whether they are equally important.”
Dr. Somnath Saha, a staff physician at VA Portland and a co-author of the study, isn’t surprised by its main conclusions. He sees many patients experiencing depression and loneliness.
“Humans are social beings, and connection to others is part of what buoys us in a stressful world,” Saha says. “When people are cut off from others—whether they are truly socially isolated and are alone or just feel isolated and are lonely—they are navigating their lives without the stabilizing ballast of friends and loved ones. That can lead to major depression and its cardinal symptoms: feeling down, fatigued, overwhelmed, and unmotivated.
“Being cut off from others is like not being connected to your battery,” he adds. “You lose an important source of energy. Unfortunately, that loss of energy often results in less motivation to engage with others and to seek help. So the isolation and loneliness worsen, and a vicious cycle is created, whereby loneliness leads to depression, which leads to more loneliness and so on. Breaking that cycle is difficult but important.”
To read the full article, click here to visit VA Research Currents.