This article is the second in a series on youth mental health co-written by youth development researcher Kathryn Bates and young people with experience of mental health conditions. The messages and formats of each article were led by the youth co-writers, and draw on both lived experiences and evidence from the research.  

We might assume that loneliness is most likely to affect older people – but 16- to 24-year-olds in England report feeling lonely more often than any older age group. Loneliness occurs when the quality and quantity of relationships fail to meet our needs for social connection. The feeling of loneliness can come and go, signalling to us when we need to socialise and connect with people, but it can also be severe and chronic, which can increase the risk of later adverse health outcomes. For example, one study found that loneliness in older women was associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Less research has focused on health impacts for young people, but in one study of nearly 2000 participants, those who felt more lonely at age 13 reported higher levels of depression two years later. The World Health Organization has identified loneliness as a pressing health threat. Around 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds frequently feel lonely.

More in this series on youth mental health
Supporting young people with obsessive compulsive disorder

What causes loneliness in young people?

Young people often find that their social relationships and environments are in flux as they transition to independent lives, and this can mean feeling less connected to others. In a study of over ten thousand 11- to 15-year-olds, those who were most lonely reported lacking close relationships. In interviews documenting the impact of loneliness on young people, 8- to 14-year-olds described loneliness as struggling to connect with others, adding that loneliness can come and go depending on the situation. When asked what causes loneliness, 14- to 16-year-olds from five European countries pointed to their struggle to open up to friends and a feeling that they didn’t belong in social settings.

Not all young people experience loneliness in the same way, and loneliness afflicts some groups more than others. Sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and whether you live in your home country or not all affect the likelihood of feeling lonely. To support young people in overcoming loneliness, adults need to understand their lived experiences.

“Not all young people experience loneliness in the same way, and loneliness afflicts some groups more than others.”

Molly’s experience of loneliness during the transition to adulthood

“My encounter with loneliness began when I embarked on my journey as a student at the age of 21. This transition, and the label of ‘mature student’, categorised me in a way that left me feeling isolated. Initially, I was unaware that loneliness was the culprit, attributing my symptoms to my pre-existing depression. I was sleeping excessively and eating meals alone, my hygiene was deteriorating, my physical health declined, and I had persistent low mood. These were all signs that I was grappling with loneliness, but that fact eluded me and my healthcare provider.

It was only when I stumbled upon an opportunity to join the Belong Collective Leadership group, a youth advisory board seeking to address issues of loneliness across the UK, that I truly understood my feelings. Reading more about loneliness, I saw that my experiences aligned with its characteristics. And reflecting on the year I spent struggling with chronic loneliness, I recognised the formidable barriers I faced that were exacerbating my isolation. Family estrangement severed a vital support network, leaving me with no one to confide in or share relatable experiences with. I wish I’d had the support to navigate these challenges sooner. We need to identify and address the causes of loneliness to foster connection and support.”

While research helps define loneliness and identify causes, insights from lived experience are a key piece of the puzzle. Molly learned that loneliness can be hard to spot or easily mistaken for other feelings or symptoms of depression. Although loneliness and depression often occur together, this is not always the case and one does not always cause the other. Learning about young people’s experiences of loneliness and the spectrum of severity will help adults identify those who need support.   

Can loneliness in young people be overcome?

Social connection can help keep loneliness at bay. But what does this mean in practice?

Loneliness interventions for young people include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and social support in the community. According to a review of the evidence, social support interventions in school settings seem to be most effective, although it is hard to draw clear conclusions because there are so many different types of interventions. It is also unclear whether there has been a decline in loneliness or simply in social isolation, and these are very different experiences: We can feel lonely in a room full of people. 

Asked how they cope with loneliness, children and adolescents said that even though it can be hard, they need to reach out to peers, be more open, and invite others to socialise. They also pointed out that teachers should encourage socialising at school.

We have gained a better understanding of loneliness in young people from research in recent years, but we need systematic evidence from diverse groups of young people to understand how loneliness fluctuates over time and in what contexts social connections can be nurtured.

“Learning about young people’s experiences of loneliness and the spectrum of severity will help adults identify those who need support.”

How can educators and caregivers help children and adolescents to connect with others? Talking to young people and understanding their experiences is vital. Some may be happy alone, pursuing hobbies that don’t depend on interacting with other people, such as reading or playing computer games. Loneliness is also not the same as having poor social skills, although the two are sometimes conflated. We all experience loneliness from time to time, and it is not triggered by an individual’s choice to spend time alone.

Caregivers and educators should provide avenues for social connections among young people. That might mean creating opportunities for group work in the classroom or encouraging children to spend time with their friends. Understanding the difference between loneliness and being alone, and having open conversations, could destigmatize loneliness in children and adolescents, and help prevent loneliness from escalating.

Molly’s recommended resources to support young people in the UK

UK Youth: A national youth charity that supports over 4.1 million young people through 7000 partner youth organisations.

The Jo Cox Foundation: A foundation that seeks to nurture stronger communities by tackling feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Camerados: A social movement bringing communities and people together through an initiative called ‘Public Living Rooms’, a free, welcoming space for individuals to meet like-minded people and combat loneliness.

Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection (GILC): A global partnership of national organizations committed to ending loneliness and social isolation. They support the dissemination of system-wide, national approaches to build social connection.

Ending Loneliness Together: A national network of organisations who have been working together since 2016 to build the evidence-base and tools to address loneliness in Australia.

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