The loneliness factor: How much does it drive depression in Veterans?


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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.

Author

Michael Richman

Mike Richman is a writer and editor in VA’s Office of Research and Development. He joined VA in 2016. He previously worked at the Voice of America, one of the U.S.-funded broadcast agencies.

Comments

  1. Irwin Bryan    

    I’ve attempted suicide three times. In 2012 it put me in a coma while the extra medicine I took worked through my system after someone found me.
    Loneliness was a major reason for my depression and decision to accept death as a cure.
    This study brought a significant factor into the light.
    I often felt alone in a room full of people. Even when I was married I often felt lonely.
    Now I live with my son and his family, including my three grandchildren. But they’re upstairs and I’m downstairs so I’m still lonely.
    It’s not that I’m not welcome, but even the kids are on tablets or computers, and my son’s either watching a show he recorded or playing his xbox. The feeling of loneliness is actually worse upstairs!
    But don’t worry about me. My son needs my income to help pay for his house and cover everyday expenses.
    It’s good to feel needed.
    Irwin Bryan

  2. Peter Stone    

    Irwin, I feel your pain, I GET your upstairs- downstairs issue w/ lonelinessa; I’m married 52yrs and have same problem with my wife. I hardly ever see her. My depression is helped greatly though by my support from friends that I see weekly.
    HANG IN THERE, you are not alone. Force yourself to have a reason to get up AND OUT each and every morning!!

    1. Morris Alexander Phifer    

      I understand your pain I go through it everyday with the lost of my mother health and mental problems just stay strong it is easily said but it’s really hard. I am having surgery this Friday on July 6, 2018 for cancer. Take care I am with you all the way.

    2. Linda J Harrelson    

      Hi,my name is Linda.I’m 65yrs seasoned and live alone.I was married twice,might as well have been single,neither knew how to commit. All my life I’ve been on my own,and realized one evening when my godson’s girlfriend came over.she stated she would be my friend and go places as long as I paid for her friendship. For such an arrogant twit I realized then,that people who think if they say anything you want to hear… have empty souls. I didn’t have a lobotomy,I simply got older. When all you become to family members or so called friends is a paycheck,their concern for you doesn’t exist. If you don’t believe me,cut off the money and see how long you’re welcome.When my family was in my life,I thought I could trust them,family…right? They emptied both checking &savings. They always were broke,would never pay back. Sometimes,finding people who have been in situations i.e. Military you find a bond that is much more honest. Don’t pay anyone including family members just to think you aren’t alone…because you are hurting as much now ….probably more because you feel their APATHY!!

  3. Renee Mccloud    

    Bryan I feel your loneliness , I am a female veteran and attempted suicide a few times. Peter was right , force your self out in the morning, put a chair outside and read a book, go out and just start walking ,go to the library and check out inspirational tapes. Volunteer ,at a poor elementary school, they would love you and their is no greater feeling than watching life through their young eyes. Go on line for support groups, go to the va for a support group if you don’t like one try another. You are not a lone my friend Renee:)

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