Association between Loneliness, Mental Health Symptoms, and Treatment Use among Emerging Adults

May 5, 2023

health and social work journal cover

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has raised the alarm over a loneliness epidemic in the United States, calling it a public health crisis. He declared that loneliness increases the risk of early death to levels comparable to daily smoking.

Traditionally, loneliness research has focused primarily on older adult populations. There is limited research on how loneliness and social support impact young people’s mental health and mental health services use.

In the May 2023 issue of the journal Health & Social Work, which is co-published by NASW and Oxford University Press, an article looks at loneliness among emerging adults. (The article defines “emerging adults” as persons aged 18 to 29 years old.)

This article reports an assessment of whether loneliness and social support are associated with the use of mental health services, and with mental health symptoms (psychological distress and suicidal ideation) among emerging adults.

A subsample of emerging adults ages 18 to 29 was drawn from the 2017 Survey of Police-Public Encounters, a cross-sectional, general population survey administered to residents of New York City and Baltimore. The authors performed various statistical analyses to model associations between loneliness and mental health symptoms and services use outcomes.

Some findings:

  • Emerging adults with higher levels of loneliness reported higher levels of distress and suicidal ideation. Having more social support, experiencing higher levels of distress, and suicidal ideation were associated with increased odds for using services.
  • First-generation American emerging adults and Black emerging adults were less likely to use services than their U.S.-born and non-Black counterparts.

The authors conclude that the significant impact of loneliness on mental health symptoms and the effect of social support on service use highlight the importance of developing interventions to prevent and reduce loneliness over the life course.


Study Authors

  • Melissa Bessaha, PhD, LMSW, associate professor, School of Social Welfare, Stony Brook University
  • Dawnsha Mushonga, PhD, assistant professor, School of Health and Human Services, University of Baltimore
  • Lisa Fedina, PhD, assistant professor, School of Social Work, University of Michigan,
  • Jordan DeVylder, PhD, associate professor, Graduate School of Social Service, Fordham University

This work was supported by internal funding from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, through the Competitive and Innovative Research Award to Jordan DeVylder.


NASW journals are co-published by NASW Press and Oxford University Press. The journal Social Work is a benefit of NASW membership. It is available online or, at a member’s request, in print. Children & SchoolsHealth & Social Work and Social Work Research are available by subscription at a discounted rate for NASW members, either online or in print. Learn more about the journals and subscriptions.