SAN FRANCISCO — Loneliness runs deep among middle-age minority women living in North Philadelphia, researchers said here, suggesting a bigger problem in urban America generally.
Among 50 African-American and Hispanic women interviewed in detail, 70% reported struggling with mental health issues, reported Jennifer Trinh, MD, of Temple University Health System in Philadelphia, at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
Many of these midlife women (ages 35-60, mean 50.3) reported their loneliness stemmed from a combination of trauma and loss, unhealthy family and romantic relationships, feeling the burden of responsibility, and a lack of supportive relationships.
All the women underwent semi-structured, in-person interviews in their own homes conducted by two female researchers. The interviews also included an eight-item version of the UCLA Loneliness Scale.
“A number of themes emerged from thematic analysis of the individual interviews and focus groups with the women,” Trinh told MedPage Today. “The themes were grouped into larger categories of Caregiving Roles and Responsibilities, Coping Strategies, Past and Recent Experiences, Hope for the Future, Mental Health Traits, Resources, and Considerations of Treatment.”
She noted that loneliness in particular was a “surprising theme in that it was unexpected but certainly interesting and very relevant in today’s climate.”
“Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy highlighted the ‘loneliness epidemic’ and emotional wellbeing as major concerns in his article in the Harvard Business Review in 2017. The U.K. has also recognized the importance of recognizing and tackling loneliness and its health and social implications by appointing the first ever Minister of Loneliness, Tracey Crouch,” Trinh said.
“In our findings, loneliness was most surprising by the different ways in which our participants experienced loneliness through a lack of meaningful interpersonal relationships — that they were involved in relationships but the poor quality of these relationships led to subjective or perceived social isolation,” she said.
Specifically, the research group found that 14% of the women reported they “rarely” ever felt close to others, and 10% said they “never” do. When participants were asked how often they felt that there was no one they could turn to, only 22% said “always” and 20% said “sometimes.”
The UCLA Loneliness Scale ranges from 8 to 31, with higher scores meaning greater subjective loneliness. The average score in the study sample was 17.2; five women scored above 26.
“I think it would be important for other healthcare professionals to be aware of how common and widespread loneliness can be among midlife and older patients and that it is associated with co-morbid mental and physical health issues,” Trinh told MedPage Today.
Contact with any type of healthcare professionals at appointments can serve as an opportunity to screen for loneliness and inquire about social supports, she added — and “not just at a mental health appointment, say with a psychiatrist, but also at one’s primary care provider or when a caretaker brings a family member in for care — like a parent or grandparent bringing a child to the pediatrician.”
“If the healthcare provider brings up the topic in an open and nonjudgmental way, it signals to the patient [or caretaker] that it is okay to talk about this and perhaps alleviate possible shame or embarrassment the patient may feel about feeling lonely,” she said.
The study was supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Trinh and co-authors reported no conflicts of interest.