The world finally seems to be taking the loneliness epidemic among young people seriously. Just a fortnight ago, figures from the Office for National Statistics found that almost 10% of 16-to-24-year-olds regularly feel lonely – three times more than the proportion of over-64s who said the same.
This is a worrying trend given the damaging impact of loneliness on our health. Studies have deemed it more dangerous than smoking and obesity and health professionals have called for it to be named a public health hazard.
Now, a new study from King's College London, published in Psychological Medicine, sheds even more light on the detrimental effects of loneliness on young adults in particular. Lonely young people are more likely to experience mental health problems and more likely to be unemployed than their peers.
For the paper, titled "Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study", over 2,000 British 18-year-olds were asked questions such as ‘How often do you feel you lack companionship?’ and ‘How often do you feel left out?’ and quizzed about their mental and physical health, lifestyle habits, education and employment. Their answers paint a worrying picture of the all-encompassing repercussions of loneliness.
The loneliest young adults were more than twice as likely to have mental health problems
The loneliest young adults were more than twice as likely to have mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, to have self-harmed or attempted suicide. They were also more likely to have been to their GP or a counsellor for mental health problems in the past year.
The impact of loneliness stretched to education and employment, too, with a fifth of the loneliest 10% of respondents not in education, employment or training (NEET), compared to a tenth of non-lonely respondents. The loneliest group were also less confident about their career prospects.
Loneliness was also linked to physical health, with the loneliest participants less likely to be physically active, more likely to smoke, and more likely to use technology compulsively, in favour of other activities and obligations.
"We are a social species by nature, and being deprived of human connection and companionship is entirely contrary to that nature," lead author Dr. Timothy Matthews, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, told Refinery29. "But it could also work the other way around – having mental health problems can itself be a very alienating experience and leave people feeling lonely and marginalised." The study is therefore not causal, he added, but a descriptive snapshot of what's going on in lonely young adults' lives.
Young adults may be particularly prone to loneliness compared to other demographics, he said, because of the changes inherent in the transition from adolescence to adult life. "Young adults are at a stage of life where they’re leaving school, moving out of the family home, possibly to a new town or university, they’re trying to make new friends and find a long-term partner, and generally find their place in the world. It’s a time of great upheaval in their social lives, and that can be a big challenge for some individuals."
Anyone can feel lonely in a crowd, but this feeling is especially common for people with social anxiety. To these people, Dr. Matthews recommends "starting small" to overcome feelings of loneliness, for instance by volunteering for charity, and having positive expectations about social encounters.
"If you approach people thinking that they're going to judge you negatively, that’s going to affect how you behave towards them. Take an optimistic approach, and the more positive feedback you get, the more that optimism will grow."
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