“I’ve had a fair few evenings at home, alone, thinking about how lonely I am,” says 25-year-old Chris from South London. “I sometimes dread when people ask me about my time off, as more often than not I’ve struggled to get out or find anyone to hang out with.”
Sadly, Chris’s situation isn’t unusual. In fact, young renters - defined as those aged 16-34 - have been identified by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as a group particularly at risk from loneliness, thanks to a lack of trust and sense of belonging in the areas where they live.
Chris partly agrees with this, saying he feels disconnected from his community despite living in a “friendly” area of South London with a “diverse selection of places to visit”. But he also acknowledges that the major factor in his loneliness, which he feels at least a few times a month, is that he finds it hard to make connections with people. “I can be surrounded by people in a crowded room - even when with friends - and still feel like I am alone,” he says.
The 25-year-old says he’s always been an introvert and has also struggled with his mental health, including a serious bout of depression, over the years. “At school I struggled to make any real connections and I often feel quite detached from my family,” he adds. “So I think loneliness is just a culmination of my own mental state and growing up feeling disconnected from people.”
According to mental health charity Mind, the simplest way to ease the feeling of loneliness is by meeting new people. However two of the three people interviewed by HuffPost UK say they can be surrounded by others and still feel lonely.
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Lucy*, a 26-year-old teacher from London, used to live in a house share with five other people. The majority of housemates did not know each other before they moved into the property and Lucy says this, coupled with the difficulties of navigating shared spaces, made her feel anxious and lonely.
“The living room is no one’s space and it’s everyone’s space,” she explains. “So you’re either with everyone in the living room, not feeling ‘at home’ and having to constantly be in performance mode, or you sit by yourself in your room and shut yourself off while everyone else laughs at the TV downstairs.”
The evenings after work can also be a terrible time for those experiencing loneliness. While many people haven’t got a moment to think during their busy days, the nighttime can let those thoughts of alienation take over. Sarah, 23, from Surrey, said she has a customer-facing job where she is in the company of people she considers friends for 12 hours a day. But when she leaves the office and goes back to her flat, which she rents alone in Camberley, Surrey, the isolation hits.
“Loneliness to me is the sinking feeling of knowing everybody else has somebody and I don’t,” she explains. “I’m long-term single and living away from friends and family. I also recently lost my beloved sidekick Meg the cat and her not being at home is really hard. She was like my buddy - when everybody else had a significant other or a flatmate, she was my saviour.”
Sarah says she doesn’t like to burden her parents or friends back home “as they have their own lives and don’t need me tagging along too”, but adds that it can be really hard to go back to the deafening silence of her flat. “I can go whole weekends without speaking to a single soul,” she says.
Sarah originally took the flat because she worked nearby and it was cheap, but since then she has changed jobs and works closer to her hometown. Sadly moving closer to home isn’t an option because she can’t afford the rent.
She believes her feelings of loneliness are caused by a “lack of belonging” compounded by the fact everyone she knows seems to be in a couple. “I miss the sensation of having a partner to turn to and be intimate with,” she says.
When she first became single, Sarah had a breakdown where she felt completely and utterly alone. “I fell into a cycle of staying in bed, getting up to eat, barely existing,” she recalled. Her partner had left her for someone else, leaving her living in a flat she couldn’t afford. To top things off she’d just been made redundant. “Without having something to live for I found myself becoming a pit of despair and loneliness. The only communication I had for weeks on end was applying for jobs I either didn’t want or couldn’t get.”
Thankfully she pulled through, but isolation can - in some cases - prove deadly. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to health: lacking social connections has been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness can also increase the likelihood of early death by 26%.
So what’s the answer to this issue, which seems to be seeping into all age groups - young and old - despite many of us being more connected (digitally) than ever?
Sarah believes we need to build stronger communities. “I think it’s sad our world has evolved to a point where nobody even greets their neighbours. For my generation there is so much emphasis on living online. You can’t, as a single person in a new town, go to a pub by yourself and make friends or join a gym and make friends.” She believes communal living options, where people share kitchens and living spaces could offer a solution, but only if occupants were open and sociable.
Chris would like to see the government help with organising more ‘adult’ community activity sessions and investing in team sport facilities, but mainly he wants them to put more focus - and money - into mental health.
“If you can help people not feel alone, then they can find support to help their mental health,” he said. “The government really needs to help tackle loneliness in schools and help kids that might be suffering from mental health issues get the help they need before they, like me, end up feeling alone in a sea of people.”