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Addressing the loneliness 'epidemic' to ease children’s back-to-school transition

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As summer ends, children are returning to school, readjusting to the more structured environment of the classroom, and facing the challenges of learning, exams, and interpersonal relations on their own, writes Alysha Tagert, a mental health expert.

As if that transition were not hard enough to navigate, doctors are additionally sounding the alarm on the state of kids’ mental health, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of pediatric patients, some as young as five, seeking emergency care.

Making matters worse, the sense of isolation and anxiety across age groups is at all-time high.

To succeed in school and beyond, children should not be or feel alone. They need the adults in their lives to help them become resilient and resourceful, able to focus on immediate tasks and more distant goals.

On the policy level, the ‘Legislation to Establish National Strategy to Combat Loneliness” introduced in the US Senate during the summer is a recent attempt to address the escalating loneliness crisis that particularly affects children and young adults and their ability to cope with any adversity. The goal would be an improved social infrastructure, similar to existing guidelines on sleep, nutrition, and physical activity, based on a deeper understanding of the social isolation epidemic.

In Europe, in a recent move stemming from similar concerns, the European Commission pledged more than €1bn to tackle the EU mental health crisis and the problems of loneliness and isolation. As the EU Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen explained, “We should take better care of each other. And for many who feel anxious and lost, appropriate, accessible, and affordable support can make all the difference.”

Underlying these policy initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic is a belief that the government can solve the loneliness problem.

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Good policies can certainly help, but they can also miss the mark. A recent UK study is a case in point. It showed the devastating consequences of government-mandated isolation during Covid-era lockdowns, particularly harmful for children and teens whose emotional and social development was disproportionately affected by these policies.

While US Senator Murphy is right that policymakers shouldn’t ignore the loneliness epidemic, we should also make sure that policy solutions actually help, and that there is meaningful support available, especially for children and young adults who need help.

I had the opportunity to discuss this issue from the mental health professional’s perspective with Pa Sinyan, Managing Partner at Gallup. He shared his insights on the loneliness epidemic at an event on ‘Mental Health in Times of Global Crisis’ in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year where we were co-panelists.

We talked about how in recent years, loneliness has escalated into a public health crisis so profound that since COVID, a striking one in two American adults report suffering from loneliness. According to Gallup’s 2021 Global Emotions report, Covid-19 saw aggregate ‘negative emotions’ reach an all-time high, with loneliness recording a 54% growth over the last 15 years.

It is hardly surprising that Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, was confronted during his tour of the nation with people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds telling him of feeling that they “face the world alone,” or that “nobody would even notice” if they were to disappear tomorrow.

This sense of isolation and loneliness reported by children and adults alike is more than a debilitating emotional state. It harms both individual and societal health. According to the CDC there is a clear correlation between social isolation, loneliness, and several severe physical health conditions such as an increased risk for heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, addiction, suicidality and self-harm, dementia, and earlier death. To put it in perspective, an equivalent negative impact on health could only be matched by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

While well-calibrated governmental efforts may be crucial, can they solve an issue as deeply personal and human as a subjective sense of loneliness? Or does the answer lie in something more organic, deeply rooted in our communities and our connections with others?

Loneliness is not simply a state to be cured or a box to be checked, but a complex human condition where personal mental health is intricately intertwined with societal norms and communal connections. We are, after all, social animals.

Though one may consider the issue of loneliness and isolation from different angles, just like mental health more generally, it should not be treated as a temporary condition that needs fixing. Though we tend to lose sight of it, mental health is a lifelong continuum, a fluctuating but integral aspect of individual well-being, not unlike physical health. It may be better or worse, but it is ever-present. Too often, our inner state of well-being is only addressed when it reaches a crisis point, akin to a sickness that requires treatment, as the US national loneliness strategy appears to do. What we need above all is not so much a new federal office in Washington, Brussels, or London, but policies that promote a social and physical environment in which individuals can thrive within supportive communities where children can grow strong and resilient.

One way to strengthen individual resilience would be to nurture a sense of belonging, shore up community ties, foster friendships, and generally ensure the existence of a robust support system. This process takes time, of course, but there are baby steps we can take right away, especially when it comes to the young. For instance, I have long recommended the use of a "coping toolbox," which my own children will carry in their school backpacks when they return to the classroom this year, as they do every year. It’s literally a container filled with simple everyday items to help manage stress and anxiety in their daily lives. The items inside have a sensory function that helps to ground them when panic threatens the mind. Stress balls or fidget spinners, comfort objects, or sugar-free chewing gum able to engage the sense of touch, smell, and taste all at once are easy to get, inexpensive, and highly portable. They help focus the mind and bring the body and mind back together.

There is in fact a specific connection between grounding and coping. Grounding techniques help us cope by enhancing our awareness of the here and now, especially in moments when we are alone and vulnerable, though nothing will replace the role of human connections and support that serve as protective factors against loneliness and mental health struggles. We heal in the context of being connected to one another, and that is where the focus should lie – in strengthening the human and communal bonds that are the bedrock of our society.

The US Surgeon-General got it exactly right when he urged, “Answer that phone call from a friend. Make time to share a meal. Listen without the distraction of your phone. Perform an act of service…The keys to human connection are simple, but extraordinarily powerful.”

In other words, we need to help create a sense of belonging. Be there for your child, your spouse, your friend. Research has shown that individuals who feel a strong sense of community and have strong ties with their neighbors, church, or social groups are less likely to suffer from loneliness. By fostering these connections, we can create a robust support system for individuals in need, reducing the likelihood of isolation and its consequences, and we can pass this sense of belonging to our children.

As our children go back to school or leave home for college, it will be the informal connections they have and those they will develop that will help them cope with difficult moments, along with simple grounding techniques each child can learn. Experience tells us that family and community-led initiatives, more intimate and organic in their approach than even the most well-meaning government program, are more likely to protect the children from loneliness, giving them a sense of belonging and the strength they need to take care of themselves and others, and to succeed in school and beyond.

Alysha Tagert is a mental health service professional who specializes in anxiety, depression, grief and loss, trauma, and PTSD.

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