Collage of Associate Professor Peter Kelly and Dr Briony Larance. Photo: Paul Jones

Curing loneliness with belonging

Curing loneliness with belonging

UOW researchers awarded NHMRC grant of $1.3 million to address loneliness and social isolation in people with alcohol and other substance use disorders

A team of researchers from the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) School of Psychology and Centre for Health Psychology Practice and Research have received a prestigious grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) to examine loneliness and social isolation in people with substance use disorders.

Professor Peter Kelly, Dr Briony Larance, Dr Laura Robinson, Dr Alison Beck and Honorary Senior Professor Frank Deane have been awarded almost $1.3 million from the NHMRC’s Targeted Call for Research grant for their project: Groups for Belonging: a parallel cluster randomised controlled trial of a group-based loneliness intervention for people attending treatment for alcohol or substance use disorders. This substantial funding is part of more than $5.5 million in targeted funding from the NHMRC, which has been distributed to only four research teams nationally.

Loneliness has emerged as the epidemic of our times, affecting millions of people worldwide. The NHMRC has recognised this as a national priority area and established the Targeted Call for Research to address loneliness and social isolation in Australia.

The team at UOW has identified that people attending treatment for substance use disorders in Australia are nearly seven times more likely to experience frequent feelings of loneliness than the general population. Targeting loneliness among people in treatment for substance use disorders is important, as those with greater social support tend to respond better to treatment.

Professor Peter Kelly, co-lead of the project and Director of UOW’s Centre for Health Psychology Practice and Research, said: “The project seeks to fill a critical gap in addressing loneliness among people accessing alcohol and other drug treatments. Belonging is crucial for recovery, especially since people with substance use disorders often face isolation and a sense of disconnection from their social networks.”

Recognising the detrimental effects of loneliness on recovery, the researchers will conduct the first randomised controlled trial of a loneliness intervention within substance use disorder treatment settings. The intervention, called ‘Groups for Belonging’, is a group-based program designed to address loneliness and promote social group support within the context of substance use.

“Through this trial, we will evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention, with the goal of helping people recover by re-establishing meaningful social relationships. The study will be conducted as part of routine care, and if proven effective, the program will be integrated into substance use treatment programs nationally,” Professor Kelly said.

Dr Isabella Ingram from La Trobe University, who is a UOW psychology graduate and a co-leader of the project, said: “This population faces a myriad of challenges when it comes to connecting with others. Yet we know that meaningful connections provide the necessary support and encouragement that individuals need to be successful in treatment. Our research, driven by consultations with people with lived experience, aims to enhance the way in which our alcohol and other drug treatment services address loneliness and promote a sense of belonging.”

Led by UOW, the team includes researchers from La Trobe University, University of Queensland, Hunter Medical Research Institute, and the University of New South Wales. The research is being conducted in partnership with the Network of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies , NSW Ministry for Health Centre for Alcohol and Other Drugs, Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT.


The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is Australia's leading funding body for health and medical research. The NHMRC supports high-quality research and fosters the development of a robust research workforce to improve the health and wellbeing of all Australians.