By nature, humans crave social interaction. Inevitably, many of us suffer if that interaction declines or is lost, and this can lead to depression for some people, studies show.
“When individuals lack meaningful social interactions or feel isolated, it can have negative effects on their mental health,” says Meredith Hettler, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the clinical director at Newport Healthcare, a mental health treatment facility in Fairfield, Connecticut.
A study published in November 2022 in Frontiers in Public Health, in which researchers surveyed more than 120,000 people in Taiwan, showed that people who lived alone were more likely to have mental health issues such as clinical depression than those who didn't live alone. This was especially true for people who lived alone as a result of separation, divorce, or the death of a spouse.
This effect of losing social connection was also very clear during the COVID-19 pandemic — multiple studies showed that rates of depression and other mental health issues increased when people had to be isolated for prolonged lengths of time to reduce the spread of the virus.
Living alone doesn’t automatically mean someone will feel isolated or develop clinical depression, says Avigail Lev, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and director of the Bay Area CBT Center in San Francisco and Oakland, California.
In her experience, Dr. Lev says it's people who are living alone but don't necessarily want to be (because of a divorce or separation or a death of a loved one, for instance) who tend to be at higher risk for depression, as the previously noted research also showed.
Some Who Live Alone Are More Prone to Depression Than Others
Although those who choose to live alone are unlikely to raise their risk for clinically diagnosed depression, the opposite may be true for people who live alone not by choice. For instance, as noted in the Frontiers in Public Health study, forced social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic was linked to a higher likelihood of depression.
Widowhood, one situation that can result in someone living alone not by choice, is also linked to a heightened risk of clinical depression for some people who live alone. A study published in 2021 in Scientific Reports showed that nearly 14 percent of widowed older adults in India who were living alone had depression, compared with 9.7 percent of older adults who were widowed but still living with other people.
It’s important to note that isolation itself — meaning physical separation from others — doesn’t necessarily lead to clinical depression, says Amy Mezulis, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the chief clinical officer at Joon Care, a mental health care platform for teens and young adults.
Research backs this up: Brief episodes of social disconnection are more likely to result in negative emotions like sadness or anger than symptoms that meet the threshold for a depression diagnosis, according to the authors of the Frontiers in Public Health study.
But over time, isolation can lead to loneliness for some people, which in turn is linked to a higher risk of clinical depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the Frontiers in Public Health study, prolonged social disconnectedness was linked to an increased risk of depression.
Loneliness is an often emotionally distressing experience in which someone feels they have an unmet need for meaningful connections with others, according to a U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on loneliness and isolation that was published in 2023.
“In moments of loneliness, people can generate irrational thoughts that end up affecting their mental health,” says Aura De Los Santos, a clinical and educational psychologist (research published in 2022 backs this up). “They may think that no one pays attention to them, that they are not important to others, and that they will always be alone.”
People who live alone are among the groups with the highest risk of loneliness, per the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory. That’s possibly because, for some people, living alone can lead to fewer opportunities for meaningful connections with others, says Hettler.
5 Ways to Lower Your Risk of Depression if You Live Alone
If you live alone, there are many good ways to stay connected with the world around you, which can lessen feelings of sadness or loneliness before they lead to depression.
1. Seek Treatment and Support for Depression if You Need To
Feeling sad and living alone doesn’t automatically mean you have depression. But if you do feel sad, lonely, or depressed, it’s a good idea to reach out for help.
“While the depressive symptoms of living alone can disappear, it is important to take these signs as a warning sign and seek professional help,” says De Los Santos. She notes that a psychologist or licensed therapist can help you understand your feelings about loneliness, and find ways to cope with them.
If you do have depression, it’s important to get treatment for it. The most common and effective treatments for depression are psychotherapy, which involves meeting with a mental health professional, and medications, like antidepressants, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Hettler notes that online mental health resources may help you find care more quickly, or for a reduced cost. Before choosing a practitioner online, Hettler recommends reading reviews for each one and scheduling introductory calls with a few of them to figure out the best match for you. The United States Department of Health & Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) has an online directory you can use to find mental health support, as well as a hotline to call in times of crisis: 800-662-HELP (4357).
She also recommends support groups as a way to meet people going through similar difficulties. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, for instance, offers in-person and online support groups for people with mood disorders like depression.
2. Spend Time With People You Love
When you can, spend time with your favorite people. “Most social connections develop from in-person shared activities,” says Mezulis. This is why it’s so common for people to develop close relationships with coworkers, for instance. When we see them at the office again and again, we spend hours making small talk about hobbies and shared interests. Spending time together will deepen your current relationships.
3. Spend Time Outside the Home (if You’re Able To)
It’s important to get out of your home regularly if you can — especially if you work from home — so you can get into a new environment, De Los Santos notes. Frequent meaningful social interactions appear to protect against daily depressed mood and loneliness, according to a study published in October 2021 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
That said, not everyone can get out of the house as often as they’d like. This can be especially true for people with illnesses, older adults with limited mobility, or people who rely on caregivers.
Spending virtual time with friends can be worthwhile, too. Video chatting may reduce the risk of depression among aging adults, according to a study published in the March 2019 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. The participants in the study used Skype, but other video chatting apps like Zoom, FaceTime, or WhatsApp work, too.
4. Find Friends Through New Hobbies
Mezulis suggests taking stock of what you like to do. Do you get value out of engaging in physical activity with others? Whether it’s a run club, biking club, swim club, pickleball club, or dancing, an online search can help you find activities you like in your area. MeetUp — a platform for hosting in-person and virtual activities — is a popular option.
She also suggests volunteering your time at a local nonprofit whose mission or values align with your own. Research shows that volunteering reduces feelings of depression among adults over age 65. A faith community, local library, medical center, or animal shelter can probably use your help, and in return you may learn new skills and meet new people, says Mezulis.
Don’t beat yourself up if you have a hard time finding an activity you like or meeting new people at first. “It takes a long time to meet and connect with people, and even longer to find and build the kinds of meaningful social relationships that most of us crave,” says Mezulis. “Start small and be patient.”
5. Take Care of Yourself
Certain self-care activities have been shown to boost mental well-being in general, as well as help people with depression feel better, according to Mayo Clinic. If you’re feeling sad or depressed, these steps won’t necessarily make depression go away or prevent it altogether, but they may help you better cope with your feelings.
- Regular exercise Exercise causes your body to release feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins, which have a positive effect on mood and well-being, according to Mayo Clinic. And depending on where you work out, it can also give you the chance to interact with other people.
- Nutritious diet No diet can cure depression, but eating well can help. Dietary patterns rich in foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and low-fat dairy are linked to a decreased risk of depression, whereas diets high in foods like red or processed meats, high-fat dairy, sweets, or refined grains were tied to an increased risk of depression in a meta-analysis published in July 2017 in Psychiatry Research.
- Sleep Sleep is important for anyone’s well-being, and people with depression are no exception. Good sleep hygiene — habits and surroundings that promote healthy sleep — can make a difference, per the Family Institute at Northwestern University. This can include waking up and going to bed at the same times each day and ending screen time an hour or two before bed, for instance.