Young People & Surviving the Loneliness Epidemic

A discussion piece of the health impacts of loneliness and why young people are the most affected
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Published on Apr 29, 2024
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Young People & Surviving the Loneliness Epidemic

In addition to the challenges that were posed by Covid-19, there is another dangerous health phenomenon sweeping the UK. In November 2023 the WHO declared loneliness a global health threat, with “serious and still under recognised” health impacts. Only last year a top US health official compared the effects of loneliness as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Chronic loneliness can impact you in the short term, putting you at risk of poorer mental health, a loss of confidence and poorer sleep quality. In the long term, it is associated with a 26% chance of higher mortality

In 2018 the UK government launched the first-ever cross-government strategy to tackle loneliness. While we would previously associate loneliness with lockdown and social isolation the trend has gone beyond the pandemic, chronic loneliness in Great Britain was reported by 3.6 million people in 2023. Not only is loneliness unhealthy and prevalent, but you might be surprised by who it impacts as it isn’t the stereotypical elderly person we might imagine. 

 According to the UK Government’s review you are most at risk if you are:

  • 16-24 years old
  • female
  • single or widowed
  • live with a limiting health condition
  • renting
  • have lower neighbourhood belonging 
  • have lower local social trust

Overall it is this current generation of young adults who seem to be really suffering, with nearly 9 in 10 young (18 -24) Brits reporting they experience some form of loneliness. 

Why? One reason could be the fact that young people are more likely to rent, and now move the most, with people aged between 18-30 typically moving several times during this period of their lives, something that impacts the sense of neighbourhood belonging. Young people have also experienced a period of intense social change in the past two decades, as many interactions have now shifted from physical to online, meaning the quality of social connections can be lower. In many ways, younger people who would have experienced typical loneliness in their transitional stages in life can now be thrown into a more profound loneliness, which can be seriously harmful.

They are also notably missing from plans to address loneliness. The UK government’s strategy to address loneliness is to drive for ‘a more connected society’, and emphasises the role of developing community infrastructure such as centres, programmes and transport links. While these will undoubtedly be great for older and more settled members of the population, I would argue that these measures might not actually reach the most lonely group in the UK; 18-24 year olds are less likely to visit their community centres or to have the free time alongside work to join programmes. More importantly, a lot of urban planning measures don't include, and often work against, young people’s existing community interests; think of anti-skate measures put in convenient locations in cities, preventing young people who would have previously been able to connect from being able to easily meet. 

So what can we do? Research shows that our ‘micro-connections’, such as the small talk you might exchange with a cashier, a taxi driver, or a neighbour, can be some of the most beneficial towards our overall sense of belonging and positive mood. Younger people can often rely on online shopping or delivery services, but an effort should be made to educate them on the importance of small social interactions. Making a habit of shopping in a local business, or being loyal to a particular coffee shop and interacting with the staff could make a wealth of difference to loneliness in this group. Not only that, but people who feel a greater sense of belonging in their community are more likely to give back, creating a positive feedback loop reaching more members of the community and preventing the exclusion of young people into urban and community planning. 

Young people should also be helped to take the little steps if they are struggling with loneliness. While it can be very difficult to want to take part in society if you are feeling lonely its important not let yourself isolate further, especially if you have moved to a new place. For those struggling with loneliness mental heath organisations such as Mind are invaluable, offering gentle tips on how to overcome the issue. 


Finally, here are some tips for any young people who might be struggling with loneliness on the day to day:

  • Reach out to your friends and family to talk, even if it's just over the phone – they might be feeling lonely too
  • Check what events are on in your local community
  • Sign up to in-person classes for a hobby or interest with likeminded people
  • Try Facebook groups. Your city might have a group dedicated to making friends
  • Make sure you leave the house at least once a day
  • Say hello to your neighbours and introduce yourself
  • Practise making small social interactions more meaningful - ask your barista how their day has been!

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