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Depressed, inactive and out of work – study reveals lives of lonely young adults

Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a significant public health issue, and King’s College London research is revealing the impact loneliness has on young people. A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics found loneliness was more common among 16 to 24-year-olds than any other age group in the UK.

‘It's often assumed that loneliness is an affliction of old age, but it is also very common among younger people,’ said Dr. Timothy Matthews from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience. ‘Unlike many other risk factors, loneliness does not discriminate: it affects people from all walks of life; men and women, rich and poor.’

A new study by Dr Matthews and colleagues, published in Psychological Medicine, gives a detailed snapshot of the lives of lonely 18-year-olds and shows how loneliness goes hand-in-hand with a wide range of problems in health and wellbeing.

Over 2000 British 18-year-olds were asked questions such as ‘how often do you feel you lack companionship?’ and ‘how often do you feel left out?’, and were interviewed about their mental and physical health, lifestyle habits, education and employment. 

Lonely young adults were more than twice as likely to have mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and to have self-harmed or attempted suicide. They were also more likely to have seen their GP or a counsellor for mental health problems in the past year. 

In addition, lonelier young adults were more likely to be out of work and education and were less confident about their career prospects. One in five people in the loneliest 10% of the sample were not in education, employment or training, compared to one in ten non-lonely young people.

Dr Matthews said: ‘Our findings suggest that if someone tells their GP or a friend that they feel lonely, that could be a red flag that they're struggling in a range of other areas in life.

‘There are lots of community initiatives to try and encourage people to get together and take part in shared activities. However, it's important to remember that some people can feel lonely in a crowd, and the most effective interventions to reduce loneliness involve counselling to help individuals tackle negative patterns of thinking.’