The need for evidence-based policy in an age of loneliness

Youth loneliness is an issue that has come of age. Indeed, loneliness might be seen as the issue of the age. With the appointment of the Minister for Loneliness it is apparent that recent media, civil society, research activity and not least the campaigning and advocacy of the Jo Cox Commission is ensuring loneliness is taken seriously. But what kind of issue is youth loneliness? And, how might we take it seriously?

One of the issues we have encountered in developing the Loneliness Connects Us project is the need to separate youth loneliness from existing ways of talking about loneliness in general, and articulating it as a public-policy issue.

Should loneliness be seen as an ‘epidemic’?

We are used to seeing news reports featuring images of apparently lonely young people, literally alone and staring blankly into their mobile phones. These reports often carry alarming statistics such as that 1 in 3 people regularly experience loneliness, with claims that we are witnessing a social plague or ‘epidemic of loneliness’. We hear about the drastic and deadly health implications of being isolated and lonely, although mostly related to older people.

In our experience, we have encountered requests to produce statistics to demonstrate the prevalence and seriousness of youth loneliness. We have been encouraged to identify a series of direct, discrete recommendations and interventions to reduce youth loneliness. Indeed, we began to explore the usual ideas of creating a manifesto and presenting it to influential individuals and circulating across networks as good practice guidelines.

However, I propose that we need a different way of thinking and engaging with youth loneliness. Framing youth loneliness as yet another youth issue through statistics, crises discourse and the typical toolbox of interventions means setting it up against other equally or more significant issues, such as youth mental health and radicalisation. These issues also require engagement, funding, and action.

Developing a new approach to tackling loneliness

The Loneliness Connects Us project is an attempt to develop a different approach. We want to resist the idea that loneliness is an epidemic, even if it raises the profile and funds the issue. What does it mean if young people who feel alone and disconnected are additionally thought to be contagious? We do not wish for youth loneliness to compete with issues such as mental health and radicalisation. We want to build connections between what can be seen as complex and fragmentary, yet are interrelated and dynamic components of the same sorts of issues and experiences of being young.

Through a partnership with 42nd Street, we have been working to explore youth loneliness from the perspective of young people. We used a range of participatory, artistic and creative methods to open up discussions about how loneliness feels and can be talked about. We developed and toured an immersive theatre performance called Missing around the UK to contextualise and explore our findings in different contexts.

Through these activities we learned that loneliness is rarely about being alone and not just about feeling lonely. Youth loneliness is entangled with a range of a diverse range of issues and can be as much about difference, poverty, and inequality as much as it is about social media and the demands to be a competitive individual. As widespread and shared as the issue is, particular experiences of loneliness are personal, relational, granular and specific. This is not, however, a note of despair but rather a call for us to remember and revive forgotten traditions in new contexts (e.g., co-operativism). It is a call to rekindle and resource dying forms of youth support (e.g. youth work and access to the arts). It is a call to ensure that every young person has access to at least someone that knows them and accepts them for who they are.

Youth Loneliness Summit

On the 22nd February we are hosting a Youth Loneliness Summit to bring together young people and people that work for them to explore practical and political action around youth loneliness. These conversations, these ideas and these new narratives will begin to re-imagine the forms of support around youth loneliness in Greater Manchester. Rather than produce a list of recommendations, we are working with the young people from the Greater Manchester Youth Housing Association Youth Assembly to take these ideas forward. The ideas will portrayed both through an innovative theatre performance and via political action through youth representative democratic structures.

Loneliness is a reminder that we are missing something in our lives and now we must realise that our society and communities are missing something as well. We must recognise that loneliness connects us, reminds us that we are social and human, and that we must respond as such.

If you would like the full report you can download it here: Loneliness Connects Us

Janet Batsleer and James Duggan

Faculty of Education


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