Young People and Loneliness
This article will focus on young people's experience of loneliness during the global pandemic. It will feature research from the Mental Health Foundation and some recommendations on how to support young people in education settings.
Loneliness can be a coping strategy to avoid hurt in the long run.
The physical and social distance restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 have caused extended periods of isolation for the vast majority of citizens across the country. These restrictions have also had the same impact for children and young people, with many of them being away from their friends, education staff, trusted adults, extra-curricular groups, extended families and wider community networks.
One of the direct consequences of this for some has been experiencing loneliness, potentially for the first time over prolonged periods. Loneliness can be defined as the state of distress or discomfort that results when we perceive a gap between our need for social connection and experiencing those connections.
Mental Health Foundation - #UnlockLoneliness
The Mental Health Foundation are continuing to monitor this and provide resources and support for children and young people and a lot of the information contained within this article is reference to the work they are carrying out as part of their #UnlockLoneliness campaign. As part of this research, they spoke with a diverse group of young people across the UK who expressed the following:
- “It feels like you are not important to anybody”
- “It feels like nobody needs you and you are not valuable”
- “It feels like you no longer exist”
There was work conducted early in the pandemic to gather statistics and views from children, young people and young adults on their main concerns moving forward. The top concern raised was isolation and loneliness.
- 35% of young people said they feel lonely often or most of the time despite spending three hours on social media
- In late November 2020, almost half of 18-24 year olds reported being lonely during lockdown
- A YouGov poll found that 69% of 13-19 year olds felt alone “often” or “sometimes” in the last fortnight and 59% feel they have no one to talk to “often” or “sometimes”
Loneliness or Social Isolation?
The young people involved in the study were keen to express the difference between loneliness and social isolation, advising that “you can be surrounded by people and still experience loneliness”, explaining how young people can be lonely despite regular close contact with peers in school, college, university, friends through social media and living with family.
They explained loneliness as a clear detachment from those around them, with some young people expressing this is used as a coping mechanism to try and combat with low moods or depressive episodes. They express doing so in order to try and avoid being hurt and rejected within peer groups but by doing so, create those feelings of loneliness and isolation as a result.
- “Loneliness can be a coping strategy to avoid hurt in the long run”.
Social Media, Good or Bad?
This controversial subject continues to divide opinion. The restrictions enforced by the pandemic has certainly seen an increase to screen time for us all, whether it be yourself or colleagues delivering lessons online or having that sense of connectivity to others that we are unable to physically see at the minute. For young people in this study, they were able to discuss the positive and negative aspect in relation to loneliness.
For those who believe that it is positive, they speak of it’s ability to connect like-minded people, others who are experiencing loneliness, without geographical constraints. For some, these feelings of friendship online were balanced against being exposed to those of opposing views, which could exacerbate these feelings of loneliness, whilst fostering alienation and isolation.
The young people involved in the Mental Health Foundation focus group advised that interaction over social media did not match the benefits of engaging face to face, citing the loss of in-person social cues, anonymity and the sense of unreality through social media being contributing factors.
What actions can we take as a school?
We are starting to see more children and young people filter back through the school gates, meaning a switch for some from virtual classrooms and learning. This return to a certain level of normality and routine will help some combat these feelings of isolation as they re-connect with peers and trusted adults in the school setting. This will not be the case for everyone, as expressed previously, being surrounded by people is not a direct way to combat loneliness and / or isolation.
The Mental Health Foundation have provided recommendations from the research and focus groups, with the Young Leaders focus group advising they want to see a number of actions. The one’s selected below are relevant to education services:
- Meeting children’s basic needs: links between poverty, deprivation and disability to loneliness. An importance around inclusive practice within schools, including supporting the digital divide, school uniforms, the ability for all to participate in school trips and extra-curricular activities, high-quality school meals and a safe home environment.
- Making a mental health and wellbeing policy a statutory requirement for all schools in England: the youth leaders identified schools as an important place of safety with a key role in promoting and protecting their mental health and removing loneliness. They felt each school should have a specific Mental Health and Wellbeing policy, with measures to tackle loneliness contained within this.
- Integrating loneliness into mental health first aid training modules for teachers and support staff in regular professional development sessions: The Young Leaders spoke of the important role that teaching staff and wider school staff play in reducing loneliness and highlighted the need for high quality training on loneliness in young people, which they feel should be co-produced.
- Schools should provide regular low-level training for parents and guardians on how to identify signs of loneliness in young people: Youth Leaders felt the parents were crucial to supporting loneliness and having this through the wider school community moving forward would be a positive suggestion to allow parents to be able to spot and support early indications.
- Ensuring every school has at least one low level intervention to combat loneliness on a sustainable long-term basis: Many schools use schemes like this already, such as buddy programmes or friendship benches. It’s important to be consistent with these approaches to support the long-term issues connected with loneliness. Care should be taken to ensure any interventions do not add additional stress to resources or teacher workload.
Loneliness existed prior to Covid-19 and these feelings have been experienced by most age groups during the pandemic at different points. However, it is clear that the global pandemic has exacerbated loneliness for children and young people. As we try and cultivate some hope that life will return back to a level of normality soon, particularly with the vaccine programme continuing in the country and schools welcoming more pupils back in through the door, we have a real opportunity to tackle this issue and the wider issues connected with the mental health and wellbeing of young people throughout this pandemic.
Mental Health Foundation: Loneliness in Young People (Report) - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/Loneliness-policy-young-people.pdf
Young Minds: Coronavirus – Impact on Young People (Report) - https://youngminds.org.uk/media/3708/coronavirus-report_march2020.pdf
What’s Up with Everyone (Website with resources for Young People - https://www.whatsupwitheveryone.com