It’s Loneliness Awareness Week 2022, a campaign run by Marmalade Trust.
Loneliness affects us all from time to time and some people are naturally happy with their own company and find that ‘alone’ time is their way to recharge. For others, being alone and isolated is a terribly worrying and uncomfortable experience.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is not a mental health condition. It’s the emotional impact of our social needs not being met. You can have lots of friends, work colleagues, social media followers, be in a room full of people eager to talk with you and still be lonely. It’s about meaningful connection.
When we are lonely we may feel unsafe, un-cared for and unloved and this has wider negative implications on all aspects of our health and wellbeing. Loneliness can lead to anxiety, depression and poor self-care. The effects of loneliness are often compared to smoking or obesity.
A survey conducted in 2019 of more than 2,000 UK adults found that:
- Nearly nine in ten (88%) Britons aged from 18 to 24 said they experience loneliness to some degree with a quarter (24%) suffering often and 7% saying they are lonely all of the time.
- In comparison, 70% of those aged over 55 also say they can be lonely to some extent, however, only 7% are lonely often and just 2% say they are lonely all the time1.
The pandemic further increased loneliness, with young people reporting a negative impact by not being able to see their friends and we know that social interaction is vital for young people.
Scientific reviews have established that loneliness is associated with future mental health problems with depression being the most strongly linked and also anxiety. The duration of loneliness seems to be the biggest factor in determining symptoms of poor mental health rather than the intensity of the loneliness felt.
Loneliness in children
Although though we’re out of lockdown, even for me personally things I used to take for granted, such as going shopping or to a gig feel like some big adventure. Children especially need time to rebuild connections so we won’t know the full impact the pandemic has had for years to come.
The symptoms seem to be different for boys and girls with depression most strongly associated with girls2 and social anxiety in boys3.
In previous studies young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds seem to be adversely affected. This could be because of not being able to do things their friends are doing, such as going out to the cinema or having the latest video game or trainers. The Children’s Society 2019 Loneliness in Childhood Report looked further into the links between household income and loneliness. Rather than just focussing on poverty they looked at all incomes and found that there was a similar pattern in not just low but also very high income households. The report highlights the importance young people place on “fitting in”. It says “Income inequality can be experienced in both subtle and explicit ways by both wealthy and poorer children”.
Social media can also cause problems with young people often feeling left out/isolated or not good enough. But it can also have a positive effect. Many people are able to stay connected with friends when gaming, through chats or online wellbeing communities such as Kooth.
So what can we do?
If you suspect someone is lonely or isolated, reach out to them, say hello and make a connection.
Try a sport, do some yoga, maybe a hobby or find a peer support group, join a union or professional association. Reach out to loved ones, an old friend you’ve lost touch with or spark up a conversation with a stranger. Try not to get upset and take it personally if it doesn’t go so well. Try again and just remember communication is a two way thing.
As a mental health first aider, one of the most important things we can do is encourage support from family, friends and community
Human connection is so important.
- Ibbetson, C. Young Britons are the most lonely. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/relationships/articles-reports/2019/10/03/yo….
- Liu, H., Zhang, M., Yang, Q. & Yu, B. Gender differences in the influence of social isolation and loneliness on depressive symptoms in college students : a longitudinal study. Soc. Psychiatry Psychiatr. Epidemiol. (2020) doi:10.1007/s00127-019-01726-6.
- Mak, Hio Wa, Gregory M. Fosco, M. E. F. The Role of Family for Youth Friendships: Examining a Social Anxiety Mechanism. J Youth Adolesc. 47, 306–320 (2019).