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Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week. The official theme? Loneliness.

It’s no surprise that the recent pandemic, which brought with it social distancing and isolation, has resulted in more people feeling lonely and isolated. Loneliness, however, is not new and is not just a result of the last few years. The Loneliness Minister, Baroness Barran, has commented that we are in a ‘critical stage’ of tackling loneliness, and that many of those who felt lonely before the pandemic will continue to do so. 

Research conducted by King’s College London found that nearly 60% of 16-24-year olds reported feeling lonely. Adolescence is a challenging time: changing hormones combined with navigating new academic and social pressures (which can include social rejection), can lead to social isolation and poor mental health. The pandemic has put a strain on relationships. Some children do not have the ability to build and maintain good face to face relationships and make meaningful connections. Someone can have friends, a loving family, be in a relationship and enjoy lots of social contact and still feel lonely, because loneliness is not always the same as being alone.

Social media can contribute to feelings of loneliness. Social media accounts often portray seemingly perfect lives, filled with social events, travel, friends and perfect homes.  It can be a challenge to remind ourselves that we don’t know what people’s real lives are like, and what they feel like when their social media feeds are turned off. For adolescents, separating social media from reality can be problematic, and if you are spending hours a day on social media as a substitute for real life connections, your loneliness and insecurity are likely to increase, especially when you unplug and the feeling of connection disappears. Social media is, however, not all bad – it can be a platform for finding support and friendship, and it can open up avenues of connections with people who share the same interests. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, TikTok launched a challenge to encourage creators to talk openly about their experiences of loneliness and their solutions to help using the hashtag #letstalkloneliness.

For young people, it’s vital that adults provide support, that we listen and understand. It’s so important to not be judgmental and hear what young people have to say about their wellbeing and mental health.

Some tips for combatting feelings of loneliness are surprisingly simple. For example, getting enough sleep and having a good diet so energy levels do not dip, which can dramatically affect our mood (those who have come across a ‘hangry’ teenager know what I’m talking about). Physical activity and exercise are proven to help low moods, and group sports can be a real benefit. Spending time outside and with nature are also proven ways to improve wellbeing, for example just taking the dog for a walk or reading your book in the sunshine all help.

But sometimes simple solutions don’t work. That is why events like Mental Health Awareness Week are so important. They help break the stigma in relation to speaking out, and encourage us to seek support when it is needed. For young people, it’s vital that adults provide support, that we listen and understand. It’s so important to not be judgmental and hear what young people have to say about their wellbeing and mental health.

Mental Health UK encourage us to build meaningful connections with our friends, family, colleagues and community to combat feelings of loneliness. So, as we continue to return to normality – meeting friends and family in the sunshine, enjoying parties and celebrating the upcoming Jubilee – let’s remember to be kind to each other, to reach out to that long-lost friend or relative, check in with your neighbour and care for each other so we can combat feelings of loneliness together.

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