Sixteen to 24-year-olds are twice as likely (50.8 per cent) to be experiencing “lockdown loneliness” in contrast to people aged 55 to 69 (24.1 per cent). That alarming statistic comes from a recent study on loneliness conducted by The Office For National Statistics. One report clearly cited cultural ignorance, stating “the public perceptions of who experiences loneliness was out of sync with reality”.
In other words, we often associate loneliness with the elderly, ill and segregated members of our communities. Then, suddenly, with the arrival of Covid-19 we all became, in many different ways both figuratively and literally – isolated. “Lonely” can be a loaded and undesirable label particularly for young people who are active on social media platforms where being liked is tantamount to being “worthy”, “visible” or “important”. The ways in which social media and mobile communications have altered the way young people socialise has been thrown into sharp relief over the last 12 months. When being part of a community no longer means necessarily showing up in a physical space or meeting peers face to face, one might have thought Gen Z and below would be well equipped to handle lockdown life. Mobile phones mean a more connected life, right? The reality of course is, that despite digital relationships and conversations making up a critical aspect of any young person’s social diet, we’re all human, and human’s need physical face to face interactions, especially during anxious times.
We need our friends and communities the most when we face life-shifts and critical phases of growth; puberty, exam periods, breakups, first jobs, first redundancies and the myriad of other first-times young people have been tackling during lockdown. It would seem we’re suffering a second crisis, muted under the crashing waves of the daily Covid-19 updates, and young people’s mental health is being hit with dire effect.
I spoke to Lola, a student in her first year of university about her experience with isolation. “During the first lockdown I was actually quite grateful to have a break from school and everyday stresses,” she explains, “however when starting university in September it definitely hit me harder.” Lola told me that lack of social interaction in a “new city without people I knew was quite daunting” as it would be for anyone. It’s something that’s not exclusive to her, and she’s heard of others in her year group who “have dropped out due to feeling very alone”. University is for so many a formative set of years where friends for life are made, and a sense of self is established, away from the influences of hometowns or parents. “It affects me in waves,” Lola says, “sometimes I feel completely used to this new way of living and other times I can’t believe I haven’t hugged my gran since March.”
Mia, a first-year student at Manchester University, notes that despite being a very sociable person who’s been making the effort to meet friends one-on-one outdoors, not being able to “meet up in big groups can contribute to not feeling like you’re a part of something larger”. Mia also worries for her elderly relatives and wishes that for her peers there were more options to “volunteer to speak to people who are alone and in need”.
Significantly, young people from LGBTQ+ communities and young people of colour could potentially be feeling the impact of Covid in more fractured and complicated ways than most. Barnardos are covering the ways in which the pandemic is affecting those minority groups. On top of shared societal anxieties around the economy, health and career, young queer people may be living in homes where “parents either do not know their sexuality, disapprove, and can restrict their contact with the outside world”. It’s also critical to note that according to Barnardos, LGBTQ+ individuals with BAME backgrounds “face disproportionate levels of homelessness, and are living with a heightened risk of safety issues”. A report conducted by UCL found that both women and BAME members of our society are struggling more than others with “higher levels of depression, anxiety, thoughts of death or self-harm, reported abuse and loneliness, and lower life satisfaction and happiness”. The Samaritans are warning that due to decreased access to “contact with friends, hobbies, or accessing mental health support” and with lots of young people who “don’t feel understood by their family” they’re registering increased requests for support over “self-harm” impulses.
I spoke to counsellor and psychotherapist, Martina Jean-Jacques, about modern loneliness, how it impacts different personality types in varying ways and what simple steps we can take in our daily lives to combat feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. Martina wanted to stress that we all should be being kind to ourselves during this unsettling period until the restrictions start to ease: “understand that it is okay to feel how you are feeling. Loneliness is not a reflection of you as a person, but a feeling that you are experiencing. Feelings are temporary, and it is ok to share how we are feeling with people that we trust,” explained Jean-Jacques. “Do not be afraid to reach out and remember that you are not alone.”
What are common triggers for loneliness?
Social media is a common and huge trigger for loneliness. It can be positive, but if we are scrolling for long periods of time, or comparing ourselves to others, it can have a negative effect on our mental health. Social media has the intention to make us feel more connected to others, but can actually encourage a disconnect. Living alone, or away from family and friends can also trigger loneliness. Feeling misunderstood by others can also be a trigger. Hence why some people can feel lonely in a group or around others. If we feel that we do not “fit in” with others we could feel lonely.
How might different personality types be suffering (introverted, extroverted, avoidant, those with existing mental health conditions)
We are all so different, but some of us may experience things differently depending on our levels of mental health and if we have different personality types. Some of us may be able to mask our loneliness and actually be social or connecting with others. However, this does not mean that we are not feeling lonely. Some of us may withdraw from others, or find it difficult to reach out.
How can loneliness manifest in different ways?
Loneliness can manifest in becoming more withdrawn from others, lack of energy, disruption to sleep or total lack of sleep. You may also feel tearful or upset, and not able to explain or understand exactly why you are feeling like this.
How might we be able to identify that a friend or family member is feeling lonely and how is it best to support them in these times?
Even though we have busy lives it is so important to reach out and check in on friends and family who may be feeling lonely. Offer to call, FaceTime, or walk with people in your bubble. Also remind them that it is okay to be feeling how they are feeling and that you are there if they would like to connect. You may notice that they are becoming less active in communicating with you and spending a lot of time alone. Spending time alone is not an issue, but if that is out of character for that person they could be feeling lonely.
For those who can’t access or afford professional help, what are some practical tools or techniques we can try at home?
Reach out to family and friends as much as you can. If you can organise walks with a friend or family member this will have positive effects on your mental health.
Try and keep a routine if you can, even if part of it just includes set meal times, bed times, study time and things that you enjoy. Having a routine is so important to helping us all feel structured and active.
Limit your social media use. Scrolling for hours can make us feel disconnected and lonely. Set a timer or use an app that can monitor your usage.
Is feeling a small amount of loneliness normal?
Yes, it is perfectly normal to feel a small amount of loneliness. You may need support for loneliness if it continues for a longer period of time.
Where can people see more advice and information?