Research and impact | By Shamim Quadir

Tackling loneliness

Dr Anne-Kathrin Fett, Senior Lecturer at City’s Department of Psychology, is involved in a range of initiatives to help understand and address loneliness, including in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Loneliness has been defined as a distressing experience occurring when the quality or quantity of a person’s social relationships is perceived as unable to fulfil their social needs. It refers to an individual’s subjective perception of social relations that is not necessarily related to their objective social isolation, for example, one can feel lonely when in a crowded room of friends.


There is a growing body of research showing that loneliness can have a harmful effect on a person’s mental and physical health, in addition to bringing costs, including health and social care costs, to a nation’s economy.


Dr Fett has collaborated on a wide range of interdisciplinary research to help improve understanding and address loneliness in different populations, including students. For example, she co-authored the January 2022, Tackling Loneliness report, an independent evidence review published by the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. The report builds on the 2018 Loneliness Strategy and highlights the gaps in what we know about loneliness in the UK, outlining what more needs to be done to gain a more complete picture of loneliness in the UK.


Reflecting on the report, Dr Fett says “loneliness can be influenced by many different factors. When it comes to place and context, we see that geographic region accounts for 5-8 per cent variation in loneliness. However, it is not a simple picture. Living in remote areas can be associated with poor transport or digital connectivity, social isolation of minorities and lack of opportunities to socialise outside of school. However, young people for example, report feeling particularly lonely in urban areas, including at university, that are rich in social opportunities.


Dr Anne-Kathrin Fett

“On the other hand, we know that individuals with higher trust in the inhabitants of their neighbourhoods feel less lonely and higher neighbourhood social cohesion has been associated with better mental- and physical health. The findings suggest that some ways in which we might tackle loneliness lie in the characteristics of the places in which people live. However, research will be needed to address knowledge gaps around the exact mechanisms through which place-based factors exert their influence on loneliness.”


Also in January, Dr Fett published research into how cohorts of students at City experienced loneliness before and during the Covid-19 pandemic and how that was associated with how they measured on scales of ‘schizotypy’, which is considered as displaying sub-clinical traits of psychosis that include positive, negative and disorganised schizotypy. Positive schizotypy includes having odd beliefs, and unusual perceptual experiences; negative schizotypy is associated with a lack of motivation, including in social interactions and low energy; and disorganised schizotypy is characterized by disorganised behaviour and speech, and includes disturbance in expressing emotions.


The study found that loneliness and depressive symptoms were higher in students during the Covid-19 pandemic than before; that loneliness is uniquely associated with negative schizotypy and depression, but not disorganised schizotypy, and that certain aspects of positive schizotypy may protect against loneliness.


Dr Fett collaborated on new research which she presented at the Tackling Loneliness through the Built Environment and Shared Space event in June 2022, hosted by The Campaign to End Loneliness. It is the first systematic review to investigate the impact of local, spatial factors on loneliness and mental health problems, such as availability of local community facilities and green spaces and found interventions involving the use of these showed the most promise to help. The review suggests that clinicians might consider including place-based interventions in care plans to address loneliness and mental health.


Also in June, Dr Fett worked with colleagues at City’s Department of Journalism on a knowledge exchange and transfer conference to look at how the pandemic has affected students’ mental health. They have created, Covid-19: The Student Experience podcast with four episodes available on Sound Cloud to help university students learn from each other about their experiences of the pandemic. In ‘Episode 2: Learning Online’, one student comments: “we were expected to sort of do everything in the same way that we were before, but you are staying at home every day, you are seeing the same four walls every day and you’ll end up feeling a bit trapped, and it is hard to find that motivation to do work, I think a lot of people were feeling that way because it was the first time that we were just trapped inside our own homes.”