Developing a theory of social isolation and loneliness in a cohort of older male drug users

First published: 09 May 2019 | Last updated: 20 May 2019

Miss Emma Hamilton

National Training and Development Officer (Harm Reduction and Emergency Responses)

Emma develops and facilitates training in a range of areas including bacterial infection and drug use as well as needle exchange training. She also coordinates and chairs the Scottish Needle Exchange Workers Forum. Emma has been involved in 2 outbreaks of bacterial infections amongst people who use drugs since joining the SDF. This has involved attending the Incident Management Teams developed to respond to the outbreaks, developing staff and service user resources and offering briefings regarding different bacteria.
Emma previously worked with Turning Point Scotland as a development manager, developing Homeless and Housing First services in the west of Scotland, supporting individuals in active addiction and at various points in their recovery journey.  She was part of the team that developed the Housing First service initially in Glasgow and then in other areas in the west of Scotland. Housing First is a housing led approach to homelessness whereby a person receives permanent tenancy regardless of their use of drugs. She has also worked with Phoenix Futures in HMP Barlinnie as an Enhanced Addiction Caseworker, providing addiction support to individuals whilst in custody and delivering the national harm reduction group work to men as they entered prison or before they were released.

Aim: To develop a theory of social isolation and loneliness (SI&L) in older men who have a drug problem in Glasgow.

Design: An inductive qualitative study design, semi-structured interviews.

Setting: Non-NHS services in Glasgow

Participants: Older (35+ years) male drug users.

Measurements: Qualitative data was gathered on: daily routine and interactions; social network; experience of isolation and loneliness; impact of isolation and loneliness.

Findings: Theory of SI&L in older men who have a drug problem in Glasgow was developed. Main themes: loneliness, existence, social network and health and wellbeing. Association between drug use, SI&L was described, resulting in an ‘ existence ‘ as opposed to a fulfilling life. Daily routine and social network centered on drug use. Different levels of ‘ friendship ‘, no friends; only drug-using acquaintances, very limited (if any) contact with family. Isolation and/or loneliness negative impact on mental health. Ambivalent attitude to life or death resulting in high-risk drug taking as well as suicidal ideation. History of suicide attempts. Challenging to distinguish between boredom and loneliness but in either case found that drug use helped with these negative feelings but also exacerbates them. Key support staff were identified as being able to improve their ‘ existence ‘.

Conclusions: SI&L is experienced by older drug using males in Glasgow and this is directly related to and has a complex relationship with their drug use.  They believe that SI&L has a direct impact upon mental health and indirect impact upon physical health via increased problematic drug use.


Honorary Professor Catriona Matheson, University of Stirling, honorary senior research fellow University of Aberdeen Dr Kathryn Skivington, University of Glasgow

Conflicts of interest:

no conflict of interest


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Miss Emma Hamilton