As COVID-19 restrictions slowly lift, some vulnerable groups may still be at risk


There has been ample advice for individuals to keep mentally healthy and connected during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

Not only are people feeling physically alone due to restrictions, the anxiety around the pandemic means people might feel emotionally lonely.

Bella Ingram is a PhD candidate at IHMRI under Associate Professor Peter Kelly, from the UOW School of Psychology. She recently published a systematic review of previous studies to find patterns between mental health, loneliness and addiction.

The paper looked at more than 41 studies from as early as the 1970s. It aims to understand who is at risk, and determine better loneliness interventions for people with a history of substance use.

She stressed the importance that vulnerable groups, such as people with a history of substance aren’t forgotten during lockdown.

“Access to treatment is a lot trickier at the moment. Some people might find face-to-face treatment most effective, whereas that has now adapted to telephone or online delivery. They may also have fewer reasons to abstain from drugs or alcohol if they no longer have to work or drive places,” she said.

The cycle of seclusion and substances

Bella’s research found that stigmatised groups, such as those with mental illness or who abuse drugs and alcohol, are at higher risk of loneliness. This increased sense of isolation can also amplify the risk of further drug and alcohol abuse.

“It does seem, from what we know, that it is a chicken-and-egg situation. There is a bit of a reciprocal cycle in that some people are lonely and then they report using drugs and alcohol to cope with that.

Then because of their substance use, they tend to feel increasingly lonely because they’re having increasing social problems, and again they turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with that loneliness, and on it goes.”

How to measure loneliness

The UCLA Loneliness Scale is a 20 item questionnaire developed by the University of California Los Angeles. It is widely accepted as an effective psychometric evaluation for measuring loneliness. However, Bella explained that loneliness isn’t a hard and fast definition.

“People can be socially lonely, but they can also be emotionally lonely, which really relates to romantic or family relationships.”

There is also some discrepancy around what constitutes loneliness. While there are key factors to look for, like social isolation, support, and connectedness, she said there is still ambiguity around their true meanings.

“We thought of loneliness as being quite distinct, but some people who are isolated or objectively lacking people around them, aren’t necessarily lonely. Loneliness is that really deep, distressing emotional feeling that people often report when accessing substance use treatment,” she said.

Bella said that it is important to understand and reach out to people who may be more vulnerable during COVID-19 restrictions.

“Think about how an individual might be travelling, and what you can within the confines of social distancing. Doing something little and thoughtful and sending them a package or even a text message could be enough for some people. For some it’s just incidental or very brief contact that can be enough to make them think others care and that they are important.”

If you or anyone you know is seeking help for alcohol or other drug use, you can call

Lifeline: 13 11 14

National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline: 1800 250 015

Media contact

Lizzie Jack, Social Media Coordinator

t: 4221 5432


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