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Mental Health Awareness Week

09 May 22

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. The central theme is loneliness and how it affects mental health, especially young people. Here, Assistant Psychologist Sumayya Alidina, sets out some of the issues that young people face and how we might all help them…

It is no secret that at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, people were lonely. But with restrictions lifting, how has this period of loneliness impacted our young people?

When speaking about how dealing with loneliness, one young person explained to me that spending time with friends can be helpful and reassuring, “but like, people? Ugh.” All of us, especially the introverts, need time alone. However, it seems that loneliness is more about the pain of being alone, of isolation even when surrounded by people and a lack of meaningful social interactions.

During the pandemic, mental health difficulties in young people increased and a rise in reports of loneliness led to more mental health symptoms. There were some expectations that the numbers coming through to our services would decrease when restrictions eased, but we’re seeing demand for our services increase significantly.

Like all of us, young people have had to go from complete social isolation to now facing an increased pressure to engage more socially. They have gone back to the real classroom having been at ‘online school’ in the comfort of their own homes. The inconsistency and uncertainty young people have faced throughout the pandemic has been obvious. With it has come an increase in social anxiety, stress and depression. These often hold the underlying theme of not making the most of the newfound freedom, or a lack of understanding as to why there is hesitation in embracing it.

We know that meaningful social interaction is vital for the development of young people, on neurological, psychological, and social levels. Loneliness in adolescence can lead to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem in adulthood.

During the pandemic, young people – like the rest of the world - were reliant on virtual networks for social interaction, particularly social media. While this may have exacerbated difficulties, many young people used social media to cope effectively with loneliness and anxiety. Going back to the in-person world without the comfort of being behind a screen, has meant anxiety has skyrocketed.

We are seeing an increase in young people experiencing more distress at school, more self-consciousness (the glamour of social media perhaps?) and increased fears of being judged. Adolescence is already a time of change when it comes to identity and relationships with both yourself and others, and adolescents are more sensitive to acceptance and rejection by peers   Moving towards post-pandemic life is change, and change is scary.

The research is clear when it comes to managing the impact of loneliness without a specific therapy: Spend more time with family and friends, try new activities, have a healthy diet and exercise. But think back to your adolescent (or even current) brain. Would you do those things? When we consider the vast amounts of pressure young people are under right now, things that may previously have been natural are becoming mammoth tasks. If there is one thing we can do as an NHS Trust, supporting people with mental health issues, it is to give them what the world hasn’t – gradual exposure back to society.

If you are suffering from loneliness and need support or any other mental health issue, please visit our IAPT website or Mind for information and signposting. If you work in healthcare, social care, the voluntary sector or not-for-profit sector in Essex or Hertfordshire and need someone to talk to, you can visit the Here For You website.

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