- Gwin Masaka
THE LONELINESS EPIDEMIC
An Introduction to “The Loneliness Epidemic”
The Loneliness epidemic within the UK is fast and uncompromising - claiming multiple victims. This can be reinforced by a 2016 study conducted by the Co-op and The British Red Cross which concluded over 9 million adults, which is almost one-fifth of the population, reporting they were always or often lonely. Whether reasons vary ranging from the COVID pandemic, mental health problems, life transitions, disability or increasingly digitalized lives, studies have shown social isolation directly correlates with adverse effects on physical and mental health. This encompasses hypertension, obesity, increased alcohol consumption, depression, dementia, recurrent re-hospitalisation, and ultimately premature mortality thus, making social isolation a major public health concern. The latter can be reinforced by the fact social isolation within a community context has been exacerbated by the difficulty individual’s experience accessing statutory social networks of support, inadequate transport infrastructure as well as the general disappearance of community social spaces. As of current times, disconnected communities currently cost the UK economy £32 billion annually.
So, what does any of this have to do with the nation’s young people? Research conducted as part of the “Loneliness Experiment” through which over 55,000 young people took part in within 2018, concluded 40% of its participants aged between 16-24 said they felt lonely often or very often. Moreover, Childline has reported a considerable increase within the number of young people using their services to discuss feelings of social isolation and loneliness, through which they did roughly 5,000 counselling sessions for this between 2017/18, common reasons cited for this included bullying, mental health problems and social media.
In more recent times the COVID-19 pandemic has infiltrated modern society on a global context visibly manifesting within extensive hygiene protocols, social distancing, and wearing of masks in attempts to break the exponential curve. Nevertheless, little is still known about the long-term societal impact this will have on subsequent generations. To understand the potential repercussions of the pandemic on teens, research on social isolation consolidates data from studies on natural disasters and the resulting trauma in adolescence. A subsequent review published within November of 2020 examined the findings of 16 studies conducted over the past 20 years. The results determined that young people that are experiencing social isolation are at an increased likelihood of developing symptoms commonly associated with Anxiety and PTSD. Additionally, experts predict the pandemic could lead to an exacerbation of substance use disorders nationwide. Teens whose social lives are “on pause” could be increasingly susceptible to using substances in attempts to numb the pain and anxiety associated with such a time that is characterized by insecurity and uncertainty.
This is further likely as a survey released within October by the World Health Organization discovered that vital mental health services have been disrupted in 93 countries worldwide.
Within an increasingly digitalized society, it is ironic to consider that whilst technology has enabled us to remain more connected than ever, it continues to keep us apart. It has been estimated that screen time can take up to approximately two to eight hours a day for young people. Not only is remote learning making adolescents lonelier, but it is also hindering their academic progress as well as depleting their sense of connection to the school and local community, with more and more young people turning to social media platforms such as Tik Tok, Instagram and YouTube to fill this void. A new study conducted with mice has revealed a lack of societal interaction within adolescence has lasting ramifications within adulthood, through which the structure of the brain is changed, therefore altering normal development and decision-making behaviour. As a result, the mice that were socially isolated were more likely to exhibit and rely upon habit-based behaviours than their socialized peers. This is because the animals showed less pruning away of unnecessary connections. You are probably questioning the relevancy of my point right now.... well, let me explain. Much like mice, young adolescent brains develop through synaptic connections between neurons forging indispensable brain circuits, when you are a young person, these contacts are overabundant, vital contacts are reinforced whereas the excess ones are eliminated. This aids within optimizing goal-directed decision-making behaviour and prohibiting impulsiveness during adulthood. Thus, it brings into question the long-term effects chronic social isolation has upon today’s youth.
Although well-known initiatives including increased time in the media have actively taken place to reduce the stigma and trivialisation, that surrounds social isolation, it is difficult to truly define what loneliness means to individuals. Despite it being broadly defined as a person’s negative association between the social connections they already have and those they desire; it is subjective and creeps up unexpectedly. Perhaps it’s that feeling you experience when your flatmate unexpectantly leaves for a week to go on holiday with their family or when the boy you have been sharing a bed with decides to share his with someone else- maybe it’s that feeling you feel at the very pit of your stomach when passing a couple holding hands, whilst you hold an iced latte in yours. You could even be in a packed lecture hall surrounded by peers but still feel an overwhelming sense of longing, inferiority – starvation from any genuine human connection. Loneliness comes in waves, much like the gravitational pull of the sun and moon- the cold high tides of involuntary solitude can engulf and encapsulate your very inner being. Therefore, it is important to know when the tide is coming in and how this can be appropriately managed, so you can figuratively enjoy the beach. Whilst saying this, it is important to consider that drinking water that is dyed brown does not make it cherry coke- ultimately you should not use negative coping mechanisms as a form of escapism from daily life. If you feel personally affected by loneliness and isolation it is vital that you reach out – as I am told no problem is faced with prejudice, but with open arms and an open mind.
Yours Sincerely, Social Calls