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Depression health centre

Is living alone bad for your mental health?

People who live alone are more likely to take antidepressants than people who live with others, a new study shows. But we need more evidence to be sure if this means people who live alone are more prone to depression than those who don’t.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

depressed obese woman

Modern living means more people are living alone. The number of people who live alone has doubled in the past 30 years, and now one person in every three in the UK lives on his or her own.

There’s been some research in the past that has suggested that living alone could be linked to an increased risk of mental illnesses and suicide compared to living with other people. But we don’t fully understand why this might be the case, and there’s very little evidence about how single living might affect our mental health. For example, we don’t know if living alone, isolation, or a lack of social contact makes people more prone to mental illnesses, or if other factors play more of a role.

To find out more, researchers studied men and women registered in a Finnish health database. They collected information about 5,871 adults aged between 30 and 65 years old, including whether or not they filled prescriptions for antidepressants between 2000 and 2008. They also asked participants to fill out questionnaires about their living arrangements and other aspects of their behaviour and outlook on life that may have affected how likely they were to take antidepressants. From this, the researchers calculated if people who lived alone were more likely to take antidepressants than those who lived with others.

What does the new study say?

By the end of the study, 1 in 4 people who lived alone had filled at least one prescription for an antidepressant, compared with around 1 in 6 people who did not live alone.

People who lived on their own were 80% more likely to have filled a prescription for an antidepressant than people who lived with others. There was no difference in how likely men or women were to have filled a prescription.

The link between single living and antidepressants remained even after the researchers had adjusted their figures to take into account things like whether people felt well supported in their private life, their education, and income. The researchers also took into account other factors that might have affected how likely people were to have been prescribed antidepressants - mainly how much physical activity people had.

How reliable is the research?

This type of study, which looks at a group of people and records how many take certain medicines over time, can be a reliable way to find out if two things are linked. But this type of study can’t tell us if living alone causes people to take antidepressants, or whether living alone causes depression or vice versa.

There are also some problems with how the study was done that mean we can’t be sure how strong the link is between living alone and taking antidepressants. We don’t know how well the people in the registry reflect the population as a whole. People with depression maybe less willing or less likely for some other reason to take part in these types of studies, and so may not have been well represented in this study. We know that not all people with depression take antidepressants, and also that these drugs are sometimes prescribed for other illnesses. This also may have affected how accurate the results are.

It’s possible also that people may have changed their living arrangements during the course of the study. But people were only asked about this once, at the start of the study. This may also have affected the accuracy of results.

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