When speaking of loneliness the image that is conjured in most people’s minds is that of an elderly, isolated person stranded alone in their home, with only a television company. Indeed, we have become comfortable talking about loneliness in the context of old age but we remain blinkered to the idea of loneliness in other sections of society.
Nowhere is this truer than amongst the young, a generation in which there has been considerable research and commentary on digital engagement and hyper-connectivity but little on social isolation and loneliness. There have been few studies on youth loneliness, but those that do exist have found loneliness levels equal to or exceeding prevalence rates in older cohorts.
Loneliness is not ‘just’ a mental health problem. Even if we were to discount the massive negative effect which poor mental health has on an individual in its own right, loneliness can lead to cardiovascular problems, obesity and diminished immunity – amongst a host of other issues. Without programmes to address youth loneliness, we risk ignoring a generation of young people at increased risk of emotional, mental and physical harm.
The cocktail of these health implications and the serious social and economic effects of loneliness, means that there is a clear practical reason as to why youth loneliness should be prioritised. ACEVO’s ground-breaking research on youth loneliness, Coming in from the Cold, estimated that youth loneliness cost £34 billion per year in London alone. This figure includes costs relating to unemployment, crime and health.
There is evidence that on the national level some local authorities are engaging with loneliness – for example, by writing it into their joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy (JHWS) and Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA). However, most authorities are only looking at loneliness among older people. Local authorities must incorporate loneliness prevention and alleviation strategies into Early Help services and ensure that young people have places to go where they feel safe, included, and respected. By doing this, they can help alleviate the devastating consequences of loneliness now and in the future.
But Government can never solve social problems on their own. Alongside local authorities, there is a crucial role for the third sector with respect to reducing youth loneliness. Health and social care organisations should review and re-evaluate their services to ensure that they are configured to detect, prevent, and alleviate youth loneliness, where appropriate. To this end, we produced a practical guide for third sector organisations, which can be found in Chapter 7 of Coming in from the Cold. We hope that you can use this to make the third sector a leader in loneliness prevention – an agenda which will garner more and more attention as it approaches crisis point.
Blog by Simon Dixon, Policy Officer