Loneliness increasing more among 18-34 year olds than any other age group

Impact of isolation emerging as ‘very serious public health issue’, says Institute of Public Health

‘All the focus has been on older people and perhaps we have been neglecting the impact of loneliness and isolation on our younger people,’ consultant psychiatrist at St James’s hospital, Prof Brian Lawlor said. Photograph: iStock

‘All the focus has been on older people and perhaps we have been neglecting the impact of loneliness and isolation on our younger people,’ consultant psychiatrist at St James’s hospital, Prof Brian Lawlor said. Photograph: iStock

 

Loneliness is increasing more among 18 to 34 year olds than for any other age group and is emerging as a “very serious public health issue”, according to the Institute of Public Health (IPH).

“All the focus has been on older people and perhaps we have been neglecting the impact of loneliness and isolation on our younger people,” consultant psychiatrist at St James’s hospital, Prof Brian Lawlor said.

Data from Prof Roger O’Sullivan of the Institute of Public Health in 2018 showed that three per cent of 18 to 34 year olds said they were lonely “all or most of the time”. By November 2020 this had risen to 26 per cent.

If the figures for those who felt lonely “some of the time” are included 80 per cent of young people felt lonely “some” or “all or most of the time” in November 2020, compared with 33 per cent in 2018.

Extreme loneliness increased for all bar the over-70s for whom it remained at five per cent – from five to nine per cent among 35 to 44 year olds; from three to 15 per cent among 45 to 54 year olds and from three to seven per cent among 55 to 69 year olds.

Loneliness is distinct from social isolation, cautioned Prof O’Sullivan. “Not everyone who is lonely is socially-isolated and not everyone who is socially-isolated is lonely.”

Those at greatest risk have been people with underlying physical or mental health conditions, women, people living in urban areas, in single-person households and poorer people.

“Loneliness is associated with depression and anxiety, cardiovascular disease, stress, disrupted sleeping, and premature mortality,” Prof O’Sullivan told a webinar.

Anna Doyle: ‘My mood has been really, really bad. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why did I even bother?’ ’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times
Anna Doyle: ‘My mood has been really, really bad. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why did I even bother?’ ’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times

‘Is there a point?’

Speaking to The Irish Times Ríona Burke (18), a first-year student at Trinity College, Dublin say people tell her that she will “be able to do all that again’ but I feel like that time is gone for me.

“I’m doing English and sociology. I feel this shadow over everything, like: ‘Is there a point?’, she says, “ ‘My older brother told me about how much fun Trinity was in the first year. That’s a process I feel I’ve missed.”

Having survived cancer and with one lung, Anna Doyle (50) has cocooned since February 2020 in her Ashford, Co Wicklow home, where she lives with her husband and adult son.

The loss of social ties has been “very hard”, she says: “I volunteered with a soup kitchen, community groups and was running around the place. Everything I did outside the home just stopped. Zoom is not the same.

Her son works in a local restaurant – now operating as a take-away – and fears bringing Covid home, so sits in a separate room in the evenings. “We used to be really, really close but we can’t be close because he’s trying to protect me.”

Her husband does the grocery shopping and she leaves home only for early morning, or evening walks in nearby woods: “You have to time it so there’s no one up there. You feel like you’re a prisoner out for your walk.

“My mood has been really, really bad. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why did I even bother?’ I fought so hard to be healthy again, to survive cancer and then there’s no quality of life, not being able to have a life outside the home.”

Variants of the virus could mean she never has her old life back, she fears: “I know I am lucky. I have my husband and son. I have a home. But people don’t get that you can be in a house full of people and still be very lonely.”

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