Loneliness is a felt experience. One that you can call to memory easily, in your body and heart. Like hunger or thirst, it is the feeling of being in one condition and wishing to be in another, it is a feeling of missing something so fundamental to our needs that we often take it for granted when we are sated. Loneliness can be social, caused by actually physically missing the presence of others; it can also be emotional, we can be surrounded by people and yet still feel alone.
Loneliness is a sweeping epidemic amongst our children, adolescents (those making the transition from childhood to adulthood), and young adults. According to a 2021 CDC survey, 61% of 18-25-year-olds reported feeling serious loneliness- “frequently” or “almost all of the time or all of the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey. The repercussions of feeling lonely include rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality as well as morbidity and increased vigilance for social threats.
Loneliness is a lack of meaningful connection. Our young people are experiencing higher rates of loneliness and mental health crisis than ever before– and it is likely because they have no one to turn to.
Three Types of Loneliness
According to one school of thought, there are three types of loneliness that range from our day-to-day experience to our built environment and personal histories. See the grid below.
Type of Loneliness
Unpleasant experiences, interpersonal conflicts, accidents, disasters, etc.
Perceived personal inadequacies, developmental deficits, significant separations, poverty, living arrangements, physical and psychological health, etc.
Personality, feeling of autonomy and control, mental distress, low self-esteem, feeling guilty or ashamed, poor coping strategies, etc.
Adolescents and young adults are dynamic human beings in environments largely outside of their own control. They are developing physiologically and psychologically, at times rapidly and with little awareness or understanding. They’re learning who they are and how to be in the world, developing their interpersonal skills in a number of different environments and communities including in school, at home, on social media, and in extracurricular activities. With so many variables, there is an interplay of diverse factors that can cause loneliness in so many young people. In the same vein, whether loneliness causes mental illness or vice-versa is not so easy to pull apart.
Social Determinants of Health (SDOH)
Loneliness is a single factor that can impact youth mental health. When we look at the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), it is easy to place loneliness within the single category of Social and Community Context. But loneliness and mental health are far more complex than that. SDOH are the conditions in which people are born, live, work, play, and age. These conditions affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life risks and outcomes. They’re categorized into the five domains below.
SDOH include things like:
- Safe housing and access to green spaces like parks
- Racism, discrimination and prejudice based on ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
- Violence, neglect, and abuse
- School environment, educational quality, opportunities to learn
- Household income, material wealth
- Access to healthy foods and clean water
- Language and literacy skills
Children, adolescents, and young people (as well as adults) face considerable inequities across SDOH which leads to physical and mental health disparities. As you can see, the SDOH are the same factors that impact loneliness.
The loneliest generation in history: Gen Z
Generation Z (Gen Z), people born between 1997-2012, are more likely to say they were lonely in childhood than any other generation before them. Compared to only 24% of Baby Boomers, 56% of Gen Zers felt lonely at least once or twice per month during childhood, according to The State of Mental Health in America (2022). Loneliness, depression, anxiety, and suicidality- amongst other mental health challenges- in children, adolescents, and young adults were increasing quickly in the decade prior to the pandemic. In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death for 10-24-year-olds.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered the reality of all young people in the United States and across the world. Because of the vast and intersectional inequities across the SDOH, some children were more negatively impacted than others by the pandemic’s forced social distancing requirements, sickness, and the immense loss of life. During the pandemic, “44% of high school students reported that, in the previous 12 months, they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row,” according to the Pew Center for Research.
More than 140,000 children in the US lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver due to COVID-19, with youth of color disproportionately impacted. This statistic is cited in the AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health released by American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association, respectively.
In their short lifetimes, Gen Z has faced a global pandemic, climate crisis, a politically and socially divided country, and so much more. Adding the cultural and individual experiences of racism, prejudism, and inequity makes their load a heavy one to bear- and they’re doing so alone.
Loneliness has a long-term impact
A study published in 2013 examined the consequences of loneliness on children, adolescents, and young people. At that time, the researchers found that as many as 80% of youth under 18-years-old reported being lonely at least sometimes. They found that the effects of loneliness accrue over time. Not only that, but multiple studies produced evidence that loneliness in youth was correlated to a 300% higher likelihood of developing depression in the future and that this impact could last for years, (ibid). These studies pointed to the possibility that it is actually the duration of loneliness, rather than the intensity of it, that increases risk of later depression.
The converse of this, worth noting in another study, is that only 7% of adults in the US who were never lonely in their childhood report that they often feel lonely or isolated today, (American National Family Life Survey December 2021).
The youth mental health crisis is fatal
This year, 2022, firearms became the most likely way that a child, age 1-19-years-old, will die in the United States of America. 65% of those children’s deaths will be homicides and 35% of those children’s deaths will be categorized as suicide. After motor vehicle accidents, drug overdoses and poisoning follow as the leading causes of death amongst our young people. (It’s important to note that some poisonings and drug doses are accidental).
“Most commonly what makes the news is these horrific mass shootings, but they are a small aspect of the overall problem. The smallest portion are the mass shootings. … it’s these daily deaths that are occurring making up the totality of what we are seeing,” Patrick Carter, co-author of a research letter in the New England Journal of Medicine and co-director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, told NPR in April 2022.
Still, the US is grappling with a school shooting crisis. More than 311,000 children have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine according to research done by the Washington Post.
The Violence Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, is dedicated to reducing violence in society through the use of data and analysis to improve policy and practice. Psychologist Dr. Jillian Peterson and sociologist Dr. James Densley co-founded the project; they are best known for their work on gun violence prevention and mass shootings, funded by the National Institute of Justice.
Over 80% of mass shooters were in a noticeable crisis prior to their shooting, most often in the months and years beforehand, and 39.5% were demonstrating isolation. In an analysis of 134 school shootings or attempted school shootings, 80% of shooters were suicidal prior to the shooting.
What this data suggests is that school shootings (which are also suicides) performed by young people could have been prevented if someone close to them had taken an interest in the mental health crisis that they were experiencing.
Strategies to help our kids are rooted in connection
Children, adolescents, and young adults are exposed to significant stressors and trauma in modern day society. We are not invalidating their experiences, and the truth is that children have faced war, famine, and family struggles throughout history. It is the loneliness and mental health crisis that they are experiencing so disproportionately compared to previous generations. And loneliness is a lack of meaningful connections.
Having a trusted older adult who young people can turn to about serious matters is a major protective factor for youth mental health across all demographics and identities.
Where can these adults be found? Who is responsible for our youth? All of us.
Having two or more mentors helps children, adolescents, and young adults:
- Learn how to regulate their emotions
- Create clear expectations for values and behavior
- Develop healthy coping skills
- Foster self-esteem
- Support development of interests and skills
- Develop positive norms for themselves and those around them
- Maintain physical and psychological safety.
The US Surgeon General’s Advisory in November 2021 also shared a list of recommendations for families, schools, healthcare institutions, community organizations, funders, media, and society at large. Read the Advisory and strategies here.
Topline recommendations include:
- Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.
- Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.
- Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care.
- Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings. And expand and support the early childhood and education workforce.
- Address the economic and social barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people, families, and caregivers.
- Increase timely data collection and research to identify and respond to youth mental health needs more rapidly
Society has finally woken up to the reality that our children, adolescents, and young people are suffering and that it is our responsibility to do something about it. We know the factors and determinants that are impacting youth loneliness and mental illness are intersectional, and so our response should be as well. To help our kids, we need to create change within those areas especially for those kids who are most vulnerable. And it will take a village.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
LinkAGES Colorado creates opportunities for meaningful intergenerational connections between youth and older adults (50-years and older). By bringing generations together over shared activities and storytelling, we cultivate spaces that allow meaningful interactions and foster mental health amongst all participants. These intergenerational programs can occur in school settings, neighborhoods, and in communities. We host photography classes, music therapy classes, and cultural programs. Learn more about the benefits for both older adults and young people in our article Intergenerational connections: A solution to isolation and loneliness.
Want to get involved? Contact us for updates!
Further Reading and Sources
Weissbourd, R., Batnova, M., Lovison, V., & Torres, E. (2021, February) Loneliness in America: How the pandemic has deepened an epidemic of loneliness and what we can do about it. https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america
Hawkley, L.C. Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA. Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, 940 E. 57th St, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
Tiwari, SC. Loneliness: A disease? Indian J of Psychiatry. 2013;55(4):320–22.
Healthy People 2030, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Retrieved 06/05/22, from https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/social-determinants-health
The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory, (2021, December). Protecting Youth Mental Health. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/07/us-surgeon-general-issues-advisory-on-youth-mental-health-crisis-further-exposed-by-covid-19-pandemic.html
Hawkley, LC., & Cacioppo, JT. Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Ann Behav Med. 2010;40(2):218-227. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8
Coz, J.W., Rich, S., Chiu, A., Chong, L., Muyskens, J., Thacker, H., & Ulmanu, M. The Washington Post’s database of school shootings. Retrieved 05/27/22. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/
Peterson, Dr. J. & Desnley, Dr. J. (2019). The Violence Project: Mass Shooter Database Key Findings. https://www.theviolenceproject.org/mass-shooter-database-3/key-findings/
Warner, M. (2022, May 27) Two professors found what creates a mass shooter. Will politicians pay attention? https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/05/27/stopping-mass-shooters-q-a-00035762