The University of QueenslandLimiting loneliness for longer life

Limiting loneliness for longer life

Feeling lonely is not just in your mind: it affects your whole life, both physically and mentally. It can even kill you.

But a team of researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) is helping to change all that with their Groups 4 Health (G4H) program, which randomised controlled trials have confirmed as having a positive impact on mental health wherever it has been implemented in the world.

Led by Professors Catherine Haslam and Alex Haslam from UQ’s School of Psychology, the team’s evidence-based psychological intervention directly targets the psychological distress resulting from loneliness and isolation.

“Social disconnection poses a greater health threat than smoking, poor diet or lack of exercise,” says Professor Catherine Haslam.

“As well as being a factor in depression, psychosis and social anxiety, loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by around 30 per cent.

“Our relationships with groups of others (family and friendship networks, and community, sporting and other interest groups) are especially beneficial in protecting our health, yet these are not part of existing interventions. We developed G4H to fill this gap and help people make the most of their group-based relationships to support their health.”

Team members drew on their combined expertise across the fields of social, clinical, health, organisational and neuro-psychology to develop the program, which is designed to equip people vulnerable to social isolation and disconnection with better knowledge, skills and confidence.

“G4H works on two pathways related to positive health outcomes following major life changes associated with such things as illness, trauma or retirement,” Professor Haslam explains.

“One of these pathways centres on how best to harness existing group memberships, while the other focuses on finding positive new groups to join in ways that protect and enhance health.

“The aim is to put people in the driver’s seat and give them agency to understand how best to engage and manage the groups in their lives in ways that support their health and wellbeing.”

Professor Haslam says that a sense of social identification with others is important as it’s one of the main things that helps us tackle challenges in life.

“Sometimes this identification is associated with groups that we have been part of for a long time, like our family or friendship groups, but sometimes it’s associated with groups that we have only just joined, for example, as a consequence of our shared experience of becoming a parent, surviving trauma, transitioning to retirement, or moving into care,” she explains.

“In all of this, the more positive and compatible groups that a person belongs to, the more likely it is that they will succeed in navigating a new or difficult period of their life.”

Participants in the G4H program typically work through five key aspects:

  1. Why groups matter – raising awareness of the value of groups for health and of ways to harness these
  2. Mapping groups – using a new Social Identity Mapping tool to help people create a map of their social world that identifies existing group connections and areas for social growth
  3. Making the most of groups – identifying existing groups that are especially important for health, and developing skills to maintain and strengthen these ties
  4. Expanding groups – using the G4H group as a platform for joining new social connections as part of a social plan developed in the program
  5. Sustaining groups – identifying and trialling strategies to ensure social group ties endure and learning how to deal with ongoing challenges that group life can present.

So successful has the program been – whether in Australia, the UK, Germany or Switzerland – that new sub-programs have now been launched:

  • G4H: RETIREMENT – for those who have recently retired from the workforce
  • G4H: GOING HOME – for people over the age of 50 who have been hospitalised and are transitioning back to society
  • G4H: EDUCATION – for students transitioning to tertiary education
  • G4H: BELONGING – for people recovering from substance abuse.

Participation in G4H is linked with fewer visits to the doctor and lower social anxiety, especially when compared with the ‘treatment as usual’ of drugs or psychological therapy usually prescribed for depression.

Professor Alex Haslam believes that because humans are social animals, our social groups play a key role in shaping how we think, feel and act in different situations, which is why they are so important.

“Social groups provide mental stimulation, help us deal with stress and challenge, and motivate us to engage in healthy behaviours such as exercise,” he says.

“Social groups have this impact because they provide us with a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging; the means to enhance self-esteem and perceived control; as well as access to social support.”

His team hopes to change the way people think about health and show them how social connections can be cultivated in order to secure long-term positive health outcomes. Their findings have been published in the 2018 book, The new psychology of health: Unlocking the social cure.

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