Most people will experience loneliness at some point in their lives. But if you experience loneliness most or all of the time, it can have serious negative effects on your health and wellbeing.
In fact, loneliness has been linked to poor physical and mental health.
Loneliness is often associated with older people, but recent research suggests that young people feel loneliness more intensely, and more frequently, than any other age group.
Research conducted by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 16 to 24 year olds felt lonely more often than any other age group, with 10% saying that they felt lonely ‘always or often’.
So, what causes loneliness in young people, and what are the health risks associated with it? And if it is so dangerous how do you treat it, or even better, prevent it?
What causes loneliness in young people?
Young people experience many transitions between the ages of 16 to 24. Moving schools or going away to university can put a strain on existing relationships and isolate people from their immediate support network, which can result in feelings of loneliness.
As well as this, moving to a new area can be destabilising. Not only might they lose social connections, but also a sense of belonging to a community.
Likewise, returning to live at home after moving away can cause young people to feel alone and distant from their friends.
Loneliness can result in mental health issues, but sometimes mental health challenges can lead to loneliness due to the emotional and physical isolation they cause.
Young disabled adults are especially vulnerable to loneliness. If round-the-clock care is needed, or they experience difficulty interacting with others independently, the potential for social isolation is higher.
Consequences of loneliness in young people
Loneliness is a significant risk factor for a wide range of mental and physical health problems.
There’s a strong link between mental health problems and loneliness because loneliness can result in illnesses like depression. But mental health problems can also make people feel disconnected from others, which in turn can lead to loneliness.
Loneliness is also linked to physical health issues such as:
In fact, loneliness can be as damaging to your health as smoking, while the health benefits of meaningful relationships are the same as quitting smoking.
How to cope with loneliness in young people
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Many people enjoy spending time alone, while others feel a need for regular social interaction to feel happy and secure.
Young people usually feel lonely because either they don’t interact with anyone on a regular basis, or they are surrounded by people but they don’t feel close to them or understood by them.
It’s useful to identify what is causing you to feel lonely. Once you know why you feel lonely, you can take steps to help you cope and potentially overcome the feeling of loneliness.
Why not try to reach out to people to make new connections? You might join a club or class you’re interested in, or volunteer in your local community. If this seems too overwhelming, you might like to join an online community instead.
If you have friends and family who you interact with regularly, try opening up to them about how you feel. But if you’re not comfortable with this, try and make new connections with people and open up to them.
How to prevent loneliness in young people
There are many reasons why young people experience loneliness, and research conducted in the UK has found some common themes which put young people more at risk of loneliness.
- Mental health challenges
- Issues with accessibility - particularly for those with mobility or sensory impairments, who don’t have access to transport, or cannot afford to get involved in new group activities
- Social hurdles - some people may feel lonely due to social, cultural and ethnic differences
If you face some of these struggles you can use the coping methods mentioned above to help you overcome loneliness. You can reach out to others, try new group activities, or use social media to help you maintain or develop connections.
If you know someone who is struggling with loneliness, or is at risk of loneliness, you can help them connect with others. You could offer them a lift to activities they might not otherwise be able to access, or include them if they are left out of social interactions.
Loneliness among young people is becoming increasingly common. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that the average number of students who feel ‘like an outsider’ rose between 2003-2015.
But remember, if you’re feeling lonely there are things you can do to help you cope. Take the time to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling.
Ask yourself how you’re sleeping and eating, as well as how your mental health is doing.
Take time to make new connections and strengthen old ones, whether that’s online or in person.
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