This week marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Week which runs from the 9th to the 15th of May. It is celebrated every year across the UK to help raise awareness of mental health and to highlight the importance of taking small steps to improve it. This year the theme is ‘Loneliness’ and our blog this week considers the impact this can have on the mental health and well-being of children, teenagers, and young people.
Loneliness can be described as the isolation or unfulfillment we feel when our relationships do not meet our own expectations or our need for connection with others. Many people think of loneliness as being alone, or having few friends or family nearby to connect and spend time with. Whilst this social isolation can make us feel alone, loneliness is more than that. It is the sense of not belonging that can make us feel alone and, ironically, we can even feel lonely in a room full of people.
Since the pandemic, loneliness has become a topic that many of us can relate to. Our young people in particular have experienced first-hand what it feels like to be alone. When they should have been out socialising with friends, celebrating big life events such as moving to university or spending time with their peers at school, our young people were thrown into an isolating, unpredictable, and ever-changing world that was far from the norm we experienced growing up. Whilst some children and teenagers have been able to bounce back to a more normal life now that restrictions have eased, many are still experiencing the after-effects of missing out on those milestones and those all-important interactions with others.
Despite the endless smiling photos depicting friendships and happy faces on online platforms and the numbers of ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ on social media that young people may have, research into this area tells us a different story. A study conducted by a YouGov poll of 13 – 19-year-olds found that 69% said they felt alone ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ in the last fortnight and 59% feel like they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ have no one to talk to. Young people, such as those going to university are at higher risk of feeling alone since they often lose familiar social connections and are thrust into an environment where they don’t feel a deep sense of belonging. A study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation found that 22% of students aged 16 and over reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 6% of the adult population.
What’s more, long-term loneliness can lead to an increased risk of:
- Poor sleep
- Long-term stress
- Low self-esteem
- And low mood and depression
Clearly then, loneliness is a big factor affecting the mental health and well-being of our young people.
How does loneliness or a lack of belonging affect children’s and young people’s mental health?
Whilst loneliness is not a mental health condition in and of itself, it has a cause-and-effect impact on children’s mental health. That is if children feel lonely, their mental health and well-being are more likely to suffer and conversely if their mental health and well-being are suffering, they are more likely to feel a sense of loneliness.
No matter our age, all humans have a deep desire to feel a connection with others, to be part of a ‘tribe’ or feel like they belong and this is rooted in our evolution:
- Early humans lived in small groups or ‘tribes.’ These tribes would have worked together to find the necessities for survival, such as food, shelter, and water. After many generations, tribes would have settled into larger communities which provided them with stability and a sense of community, whereby they could grow in both safety and number.
- When early humans interacted, they produced a chemical response in the brain. Early humans would have hunted and gathered and took care of their families by working together. Each time they interacted with one another, they would have released chemicals, or neurotransmitters, in the brain which would have encouraged more of this mentally healthy behaviour. Scientists now recognise this as the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals such as Serotonin. This neurotransmitter allowed early humans to cope better with challenges, feel braver, cope better with pain, and even feel more motivated. In essence, they were rewarded with this ‘feel-good’ chemical every time they interacted with one another.
- This natural tendency stills exists within us today. In the modern-day, we have evolved to release these same positive neurotransmitters when we interact with others. Chemicals in the brain, such as Serotonin, increase our feelings of happiness and positivity. Since it is motivating, Serotonin encourages us to keep doing the things that make us feel good. The more Serotonin we produce, the more motivated and more positive we feel.
If your child already works with one of the Youth Fairies, you will already know how important the neurotransmitter, Serotonin, is for children’s mental health and well-being and the steps children can take to produce more of it. What is important to note; however, is that the less children engage in healthy interactions with others, the less likely they are to produce a steady flow of Serotonin in the brain. And herein lies one of the reasons why loneliness has a cause-and-effect impact on children’s mental health: the less they engage in interactions with others, the less Serotonin they are likely to produce – and the less Serotonin they produce, the less likely they will want to engage in positive interactions.
If your child has fallen into this negative spiral, it is important for them to begin taking small actions to break this cycle, leading to better connections with others and improved mental health and well-being.
So, how can I support my child to begin to connect more with others and boost their feelings of well-being?
- Spend time encouraging your child to connect with themselves. Sometimes when we feel lonely, it can be due to a lack of emotional connection we have with ourselves. Perhaps we have lost time for the hobbies we once enjoyed or the music we once listened to that brought us joy and happiness. Talk together about the things that make you happy and encourage your child to do the same. It might just be that they remember a hobby they once had or a desire to try something new that will open up new opportunities they can enjoy.
- Help your child to create a list of fun activities they can look back on. Spending time engaging in activities that bring us happiness is another way of increasing our levels of Serotonin, the feel-good chemical. As we have seen, the more Serotonin we produce, the more positive we feel and the more likely we are to engage in positive interactions with others. This list can be something you commit to doing together as a family once a week or it might be something that involves your child reaching out to a friend. The more these activities involve other people, the better.
- Remind children of their choices on social media. It is important for young people to remember that the lives celebrities and other people portray of themselves online are only part of the story. People share what they want others to see and this can result in young people having unrealistic expectations of themselves and their relationships with others. Remind your child to be kind to themselves and that just because they feel a certain way now, doesn’t mean they will always feel this way. Remind them too that they have control over the accounts they choose to follow. If something online is not making them feel good, consider following other influencers or accounts that lift their mood and give them perspective instead.
- Encourage your child to find their ‘tribe.’ Spending time with others who we feel a connection to, who we have similar interests with, and who make us feel good about ourselves helps us to feel a sense of belonging and connection. Support them in finding clubs and extra-curricular activities they enjoy where they can share a common interest with others. If they are soon to become a student at university, encourage them to join the many societies and clubs on offer and to try and remember that although it can feel daunting, everyone will likely feel the same way!
- Support them in finding a healthy balance. With exam season in full swing, it can be so easy for teenagers and young people to begin to feel lonely and isolated as they pour all of their spare time into revision and studying. Keeping perspective and remembering to still do the things that make them feel good, such as spending time with friends and family, will not only likely improve their exam performance in the long run but boost their feelings of happiness and well-being too.
- Encourage them to reach out to a friend. Meeting up with a friend might feel overwhelming but the online world has many opportunities for connecting with others when we need to. Whether that’s sending a funny selfie, texting a joke or a funny story, or just reaching out to a friend to see how they are, it all helps in beginning to build more connections.
- Ensure they know who to turn to if they need to talk. Whilst we might feel as parents that we have lots of words of wisdom to share with our children if only they would listen, we also know that listening to our advice is not something that our children always find easy! If you are concerned that your teenager may be suffering from feelings of loneliness remind them of the safe people in their life they can turn to, such as grandparents, aunties or uncles, or family friends. There are also lots of charitable organisations that offer support to young people and their information can be found below.
The following charitable organisations offer support to children and young people who are struggling with their mental health and well-being:
https://giveusashout.org/ Text Shout on 85258, which offers a free and confidential 24/7 text message service.
https://studentspace.org.uk/ Text STUDENT to 85258 for students in need of emotional support.
https://www.samaritans.org/ Call Samaritans on 116 123 for free at any time.
https://mermaidsuk.org.uk Mermaids is a helpline (0808 801 0400) and webchat service specifically supporting transgender and gender-diverse young people.
https://www.themix.org.uk/ A free, confidential support for young people under 25.