The UK is in the grip of a “loneliness epidemic” with increasing numbers of people complaining they feel isolated from traditional family and friends support networks.
Typically viewed as an issue that affects the elderly, research suggests that it is in fact young people that are more likely to be victims of social isolation.
Insurance firm Aviva spoke to 2000 adults and found nearly half of 18 to 24-year-olds said they often felt lonely, compared to a quarter of those aged over 65.
A third of younger people also said they would be too embarrassed to tell someone if they had mental health problems.
The findings backed up a 2010 report by the Mental Health Foundation, which found that almost 60 per cent of those aged between 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35 per cent of those aged over 55.
It’s a trend that chimes with the experience of Lorna Wotherspoon, a support worker with Falkirk and District Association for Mental Health (FDAMH), who liaises with young adults who have been referred by their GPs.
Root problems such as long-term unemployment or family breakdown can quickly have a negative impact on a person’s mental health.
“The main reason for referral is anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues and agoraphobia which were secondary to their fragile social situations and lifestyles,” she said.
“This includes lack of family support, with the young folk often not living in the same area as the family. This can result in frequent changes of address and rootlessness, which impacts on their ability to form friendships as they have often lacked the social skills and confidence to form and maintain positive relationships.
“A lack of meaningful activity, such as employment or education, is the result of the young person having dropped out of school before the completion of formal education.”
Loneliness among the elderly has long been a recognised problem, with day care facilities, voluntary groups and drop-in centres all established to help. But those in their late teens and early 20s are considered too old for mainstream youth groups.
Once a person feels cut off from everyday society, they can quickly enter a downward social spiral.
“Alcohol and substance misuse is often used as a coping strategy for the person to help deal with social anxiety,” continued Lorna. “This means a person enters a culture which has a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing, and can lead to exploitation.
“I have dealt with pregnant females who had little or no family support for reasons such as family disputes or relationship breakdowns. Self-harm is also used as a coping strategy especially when someone is depressed and feels alone.
“Bereavement is also an issue, especially if a young person has had only one main carer and is then left to cope when this person dies. This can lead to financial difficulties.”
Help is there if you need it
A “unique in Scotland” children’s service aims to protect the rights of every child in the Falkirk district.
Run by the Quarriers charity, in partnership with Falkirk Council, Falkirk Children’s Rights Service offers advice and representation to those aged 19 and under and their families.
From its office at 9c East Bridge Street, the service is independent from social work, education services, health professionals, foster carers and all other adults concerned with the care of children and young people.
It’s one of two distinct charities working in the Falkirk district that support potentially vulnerable young people get the help and advice they need.
“The service is unique as we offer help to every child, not just those in contact with the social services,” said children’s rights officer Craig French.
“We help young people understand their rights and responsiblities. We can advise them in an impartial way. We can help them sort out their concerns or make a complaint. We always listen to them and take seriously what they have to say.
“People can drop in from the street to see us; for example a parent or a relative who is worried about a child not attending school.
“If you think that you, or a child or young person in your care, could use support from the service, please don’t hesitate to call the office or pop in for a chat.”
Meanwhile, Who Cares? Scotland is a national voluntary organisation that provides a range of advocacy, advice and support services across Scotland for children and young people with experience of care up to the age of 25.
It promotes a vision of a Scotland where all children and young people with experience of care are understood, believed in and given every opportunity to thrive.
Where young people can get vital support
Falkirk and District Mental Health Association is located at 173 Victoria Road, Falkirk. You can call FDAMH on (01324) 671600, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There are good organisations out there, but perhaps it is lack of awareness, fear of seeking help, fear of being stigmatised with mental wellbeing difficulties or accessibility to services which is a hurdle,” said Lorna.
Quarriers Falkirk Children’s Service, which aims to support all local children and young people aged 19 or under, is based at 9c East Bridge Street, Falkirk. Call (01324) 612308 or e-mail email@example.com.
Who Cares? Scotland supports those who have been in contact with the social services system. You can e-mail Mary Bateman on firstname.lastname@example.org.