After a year of successive lockdowns and social isolation, the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) has identified young people in urban areas as the most likely demographic to feel lonely regularly.

Concerningly, loneliness has been shown to have a direct association with mental health conditions such as depression, as demonstrated by a study published this year. The research concluded that there was a strong relationship between loneliness and instances of depression.

Lonely people suffer from more depressive symptoms, and it is one of the leading indicators of social wellbeing. And if left untended, loneliness can have severe implications both for mental health and for physical fitness.

Results from the OPN survey found that from October 2020 to February 2021, 38.6% (around 10.5 million people) responded that they had experienced loneliness in the last seven days. And especially young people and single people were more likely to experience ‘lockdown loneliness’ in the previous week, specifically due to having no one to talk to.

Individuals who said that they had no one to talk to during lockdown 3 were almost ten times more likely to be lonely than people who had someone to talk to. Additionally, respondents who felt anxious about leaving the house were more likely to report lockdown loneliness than individuals who felt comfortable.

In response to the OPN study, Zoë Bailie, director of brand and innovation at The Mix, a UK charity providing free support to under-25s, said that "isolation" and "disconnection" was causing many young people to “suffer from skin hunger”, as a result of lockdown measures that have deprived young people of contact with each other.

Ms Baille suggested that greater use of online spaces was necessary to provide young people with support networks during this time of high anxiety and social disconnectedness. She commented: “To try to prevent what we refer to as ‘skin hunger’ among younger people, we offer them the connection they’ve been missing in real life through our online moderated spaces such as group chats, where they can become part of a safe, supportive community.”

The results of the OPN study highlights the findings of a previous ONS study which found that over a quarter of students reported feeling lonely, and almost two-thirds indicated that their wellbeing and mental health had worsened since the autumn term of 2020.

Mapping loneliness: where are the loneliest places in the UK?

Across the country, the OPN statistic showed the types of places where a higher proportion of people felt lonely ‘often or always’. People who live in deprived urban areas outside London were more likely to have felt lonely over the last year in comparison to people who live in more affluent countryside areas.

Loneliness also identified as being felt most keenly felt in areas with higher levels of unemployment and crime. This was also shown in pre-pandemic stats that connected an area with high unemployment levels to higher-than-average levels of anxiety and overall poorer life satisfaction. The pandemic has only exacerbated this situation more extremely.

Some of the places where people highly reported that they often or always feel lonely include:

  • Blackburn 18%
  • Tameside 15%
  • North Lincolnshire 16%
  • Mansfield 15%
  • Wycombe 18%
  • Bridgend 14%
  • Glasgow 11%

Additionally, the analysis also indicated that people who lived in areas with a thriving local business community and adult education facilities were more resilient to feeling lonely, with local authorities in London particularly benefiting from them.

Another aspect of the statistical analysis was that higher levels of anxiety were demonstrated to occur in more densely populated areas, possibly due to the risk of infection and concerns about social distancing. However, ONS analysts said that more research was necessary to identify the cause of that trend.

What should the Government do to address the children’s mental health crisis?

Similarly, to the OPN survey results, a new analysis conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists of NHS data has concluded that a year on from the first lockdown, and after warnings from the mental health sector, young people are bearing the brunt of the mental health crisis.

NHS data has shown that nearly 400,000 children and 2.2m adults sought help for their mental health over the last years, with 1.68m more mental health sessions being delivered during the pandemic.
Through analysis of the data, the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that:

  • 80,226 more children and young people were being referred to mental health services between April and December of last years, an increase of 28% on 2019 figures.
  • 600,628 more treatment sessions were delivered.
  • 18,269 children and young people required urgent and emergency crisis care – including assessments if they required being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

To address the deluge of mental ill-health and keep up with demand, the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for the Government to urgently allocate the £500m promised in their mental health recovery plan to the frontline so people can get the support they need.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “While the recent funding announcement is welcome, we need this money to reach mental health services as soon as possible to tackle this crisis.”