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Living with loneliness?

Gemma Milligan

04 Mar, 2019

 

The largest ever UK study into loneliness has just been published and it's on the rise amongst young people. What needs to be done?

 

The largest ever study into loneliness has revealed that young people feel lonely more often and more intensely than any other age group. The study carried out by academics at the University of Manchester, Brunel University London, and the University of Exeter, asked 55,000 people aged 16 and over, about their opinions and personal experiences of loneliness.

The survey found that 40% of those aged 16-24 say they feel lonely often or very often, compared to 29% of 65-74-year-olds and 27% of those aged over 75.

There are lots of potential reasons for this. Young people between 16 and 24 generally go through significant identity change as they try to work out their place in the world - which can lead to feelings of isolation. It’s also a time of learning to regulate emotions, and younger people just have less practice at this. What we don’t know, is whether young people have always felt lonely, or whether there are things about being young now that make it worse, though researchers did find that those who report feeling the loneliest tended to have more ‘online only’ friends, on platforms such as Facebook.

The five main characteristics of being lonely, according to the survey were:

  • Having nobody to talk to
  • Feeling disconnected from the world
  • Feeling left out
  • Sadness
  • Not feeling understood

There are lots of potential reasons for this. Young people between 16 and 24 generally go through significant identity change as they try to work out their place in the world - which can lead to feelings of isolation. It’s also a time of learning to regulate emotions, and younger people just have less practice at this. What we don’t know, is whether young people have always felt lonely, or whether there are things about being young now that make it worse, though researchers did find that those who report feeling the loneliest tended to have more ‘online only’ friends, on platforms such as Facebook.

 

For more information about this research, check out the ‘Anatomy of Loneliness’ episodes from BBC Radio 4.

 

Comment: Loneliness and OpenHouse

As a Youth Worker, the findings of this study do not surprise me, as I have observed the effects of this epidemic on many of those I work with. The struggle to build meaningful relationships. The sense of not belonging anywhere. The negative opinion of the self as a result. Loneliness is a painful experience, and one that may not be outwardly visible, but is inwardly crushing for those who are going through it. The rise of social media and gaming platforms can make it harder for young people to learn how to build the depth and quality of connection that they are often looking for. And some need to experience different ways of spending time with others, and learn how to take part in real community.

 

This is what OpenHouse aims to do. This project, which I lead, was developed to empower young people to manage feelings of loneliness, both while they are taking part, but also beyond its completion. A group learns to cook different dishes over eight weeks under the instruction of a professional chef, and have the opportunity to get to know each other within the safety of completing tasks together as they become part of a small community.

"Significant friendships have been built which have lasted beyond the duration of OpenHouse, young people’s confidence in themselves and their abilities has bloomed, and all of those who have taken part have reported feeling like they belong to something, many of them for the first time."

Gemma MilliganEngagement Manager
 

OpenHouse then culminates in the young people using all that they have learned to cook and host a dinner for a group of others from the local community. This gives them a sense of pride and achievement, and also cements their feeling of belonging to something meaningful.

The use of food and hospitality as a tool for building connection has been incredibly powerful. Significant friendships have been built which have lasted beyond the duration of OpenHouse, young people’s confidence in themselves and their abilities has bloomed, and all of those who have taken part have reported feeling like they belong to something, many of them for the first time. Churches have lots of experience of this kind of hospitality. If this research is correct, the Church has an important role to play in helping young people understand loneliness and find relief from it in the context of welcoming community. Many young people are searching for a place to belong; will the church be that place?

This article originally appeared in the ninth edition of The Story (2019, Vol. 1)

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