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Research Update: Loneliness and Social Distancing Research Study

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By Katie Lewis, PhD 

While we are still in the process of collecting data and will be analyzing it further in the coming months, I wanted to take a moment to provide an update and outline some preliminary findings of my Loneliness and Social Distancing research study.  

To date, 166 individuals have enrolled in the study, collectively providing nearly 800 experience sampling entries that shed light on how people are managing their daily experiences while living with social distancing.  

Participants have described themselves as maintaining social contact primarily through remote means (via text, phone calls or videoconferencing), with 43.5% of all responses showing that individuals have in-person contact with only 1 or 2 individuals each day on average (over a third of all responses show that participants have avoided all in-person contact with individuals outside of their household since the last rating period).  

Participants have reported frequent sleep disturbance (65.7% of all experience sampling entries mention difficulty with sleep since the last rating period), while nearly 1 in 4 responses describe new onset of physical health symptoms related to new or ongoing illness (23.1%). Of concern, 14.8% of participants have reported at least one episode of suicidal ideation during the study period. By way of comparison, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 4.3% of adults overall in the US had thoughts about suicide in 2017; 10.5% of the highest risk group (men ages 18-25) reported suicidal thoughts.  

After recruitment for the study concludes in July 2020, data will be analyzed to determine factors affecting changes in feelings of loneliness and other detrimental mental health outcomes during social distancing, and a follow-up study is currently being planned for the upcoming fall and winter to track long-term changes in experiences and outcomes (over 90% of participants in the current study have agreed to be re-contacted for follow up). 

General sample baseline information: 

  • 56.6% have received mental health treatment of some kind in the last year 
  • 45.2% described higher levels of stress and tension in their households in the month leading up to their participation in the study, compared to a year ago 
  • Nearly twice as many full-time employed participants are working remotely compared to those working on site at least one day a week (40% of participants were working remotely, while 24% continued to work on-site at least one day a week) 
  • 53.6% are employed in direct patient care facilities (38.6% specifically in mental health care facilities, the rest in medical settings) 
  • ​24.7% report living in single occupancy households 

Experience sampling data 

  • Average number of phone or video social contacts per day: 2.75, range 0 to 20 
  • Average number of people contacted via text per day: 5.53, range 0 to 37 
  • Average number of in-person interactions per day (outside of household): 1.97, 0 to 30 (mode = 0, 34% of reports); 43.5% of entries report only interacting with 1-2 people outside of household) 
  • 65.7% of all entries report sleep disturbance 
  • 8.3% of all entries report suicidal (total of 17 individual subjects [of 115 who have completed at least one experience sampling entry] report at least one episode) 
  • 23.1% of all entries report health symptoms related to new or ongoing illness 
  • ​6.2% of all reports mention new relational exposure to COVID via someone they are very (3.3%) or somewhat (2.9%) close to; 77.6% of all entries report no new relational exposure 

While data collection is ongoing and we have yet to run formal analyses, a preliminary review shows that more frequent social interactions via text, phone, or video contact are associated with lower feelings of loneliness between rating periods; interestingly, in-person interactions appear to be unrelated to loneliness. While closer examination of the data is needed, these early findings may suggest that public health interventions aimed at promoting virtual social opportunities may be effective in reducing experiences of loneliness and corresponding negative mental health effects at the community level; the potential importance of in-person social contact for reducing feelings of loneliness during social distancing is more equivocal, at this preliminary data of the study. 

If you are interested in joining the study, please visit: www.austenriggs.org/loneliness 

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