Quality not quantity: loneliness subtypes, psychological trauma, and mental health in the US adult population

  • Philip HylandEmail author
  • Mark Shevlin
  • Marylene Cloitre
  • Thanos Karatzias
  • Frédérique Vallières
  • Gráinne McGinty
  • Robert Fox
  • Joanna McHugh Power
Original Paper



Loneliness is a recognised public-health concern that is traditionally regarded as a unidimensional construct. Theories of loneliness predict the existence of subtypes of loneliness. In this study, latent class analysis (LCA) was used to test for the presence of loneliness subtypes and to examine their association with multiple mental health variables.


A nationally representative sample of US adults (N = 1839) completed the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale, along with self-report measures of childhood and adulthood trauma, psychological wellbeing, major depression, and generalized anxiety.


When treated as a unidimensional construct, 17.1% of US adults aged 18–70 were classified as lonely. However, the LCA results identified four loneliness classes which varied quantitatively and qualitatively: ‘low’ (52.8%), ‘social’ (8.2%), ‘emotional’ (26.6%), and ‘social and emotional’ (12.4%) loneliness. The ‘social and emotional’ class were characterised by the highest levels of psychological distress, followed by the ‘emotional’ class. The ‘social’ loneliness class had similar mental health scores as the ‘low’ loneliness class. Childhood and adulthood trauma were independently related to the most distressed loneliness classes.


Current findings provide support for the presence of subtypes of loneliness and show that they have unique associations with mental health status. Recognition of these subtypes of loneliness revealed that the number of US adults aged 18–70 experiencing loneliness was twice as high as what was estimated when loneliness was conceptualized as a unidimensional construct. The perceived quality, not the quantity, of interpersonal connections was associated with poor mental health.


Loneliness Latent class analysis Mental health 


Author contributions

PH, MS, MC, and JMP developed the study concept. PH, MS, GM, and RF conducted the statistical analyses. JMP wrote the introduction. TK, FV, and MC contributed to the writing of the discussion. All authors reviewed, revised, and contributed to the writing of the final version of the manuscript. All authors have approved the final version of the paper for submission.


This work was supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health (Grant number R01 MH08661).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BusinessNational College of IrelandDublinIreland
  2. 2.Centre for Global Health, School of PsychologyTrinity College DublinDublinIreland
  3. 3.School of PsychologyUlster UniversityDerryUK
  4. 4.National Center for PTSDVeterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care SystemPalo AltoUSA
  5. 5.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral ScienceStanford UniversityPalo AltoUSA
  6. 6.School of Health and Social CareEdinburgh Napier UniversityEdinburghUK
  7. 7.Rivers Centre for Traumatic StressNHS LothianEdinburghUK
  8. 8.School of PsychologyMaynooth UniversityKildareIreland

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