Recent research suggests that the risk of depression in those who live alone is around 80 per cent higher than those who live in some other kind of family group. The press quickly latched on to the story and before long the major news outlets proclaimed that people who live alone are more depressed. I think we need to take a more careful look at such bold assertions. Certainly the drama is fueled, in part, by the fact that recent social trends point to an increase in the numbers of people who, either by choice or not, find themselves living alone. Time to consider the situation in a more measured way, I think.
The research previously referred to, comes from a Finnish study that followed 3500 working aged men and women for seven years and is reported, amongst other places, on the ScienceDaily website. Living arrangements were compared along with various other social activities and health risk factors such as smoking and drinking. A key issue here was the use or otherwise of antidepressant medication. The upshot of the study was that men and women are equally at a significantly increased risk of depression if they live alone.
Living alone, I believe, is not the thing to be concerned about. Plenty of people live alone and have perfectly well adjusted lives. Social isolation is different. Social isolation results from a lack of social connectedness. It is therefore perfectly possible to live alone but to be fully socially connected in other respects.
This isn't just a case of me being picky over the use of language. I picked up criticisms of the research in Bella DePaulo's article in Psychology Today. Dr. DePaulo points out that researchers asked about living arrangements just once, when volunteers were first recruited. According to Dr. DePaulo, the researchers only knew whether volunteers were living alone during the first year. They could, for all the researchers knew, have changed living arrangements several times after that.
Perhaps the most significant problem is the emphasis placed on antidepressants. Again, Dr. DePaulo makes the point that when researchers checked the drug registry, they found 9.1 per cent of people living alone filled antidepressant prescriptions compared with 5.7 per cent in other living conditions. This tells us nothing about the causes. The temptation therefore has been to link living alone with increased use of antidepressants.
Living alone does not automatically equate with loneliness. In fairness, the Finnish study does point to a number of factors that contribute to a sense of isolation, many of which reinforce what is already known. The difference with this study is the fact that it focuses on working men and women. Much of what we know about social isolation and loneliness comes from studies of the elderly, so this makes the approach useful. Social isolation can however affect anyone. Stephen IIardi, Ph.D., indicates previous research that points to 25 per cent of Americans having, ‘no meaningful social support at all - not a single person they can confide in.' He cites the sociologist Robert Putnam who claims that for every 10 minutes added to commute time, there's roughly a 10 per cent decrease in social ties.