This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 and the theme is ‘loneliness’. At some stage in our lives, we’re likely to experience loneliness in some way; this is true notwithstanding the pandemic, which forced many of us into isolation at one point or another, and ignited conversations globally around loneliness and mental health.
Our connection to people is a cornerstone of our wellbeing, but what can we do when we - or the children that we know - are struggling to connect and are feeling lonely, and is there a way that better social and emotional education can help to prevent loneliness?
There is increasing discussion of a ‘whole school approach’ to mental wellbeing. In practical terms, it’s often difficult for schools to know how to execute this and make wellbeing education meaningful. Given loneliness is a risk factor for many negative behaviours and mental health difficulties, including bullying, suicide and substance abuse, there’s a case for education around preventing loneliness to feature in any wellbeing curriculum.
If we lift strategies from other types of wellbeing education and prevention programmes, it’s possible to formulate a basic outline of what a loneliness-prevention programme could look like:
As with other types of mental health education, often the first step is to open up the conversation around a particular wellbeing issue and debunk some common myths. Encouraging children and teens to talk about loneliness e.g., through asking students to develop a definition or outline a fictional example of a person that is feeling lonely - may help to reduce stigma and raise awareness of the warning signs. Plus, having a discussion around loneliness presents an opportunity to consider common misconceptions, such as that people with lots of friends can’t be lonely, or that you can’t be lonely in a crowd.
in the same way that students are increasingly learning mindfulness techniques and methods of expressing gratitude as ways to manage low mood and improve wellbeing, perhaps we can help to prevent loneliness by teaching children certain emotional and social skills. For example, the OECD suggests that teaching children how to initiate, maintain and end interactions, understand others, resolve conflicts, and problem-solve from a social perspective is one of the key ways to prevent and reduce loneliness.
Reframing responses to social situations
n addition to improving the way that children support and interact with others, psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad suggests that, as part of loneliness-prevention education, children should also learn how to frame their negative responses to social situations. Existing strategies for helping people repackage their thoughts in a more positive way could easily be adapted for a loneliness-prevention programme in a classroom setting e.g., the ‘challenging and changing’ technique. For example, if someone doesn’t text back quickly, instead of catastrophizing e.g., ‘Have I said something wrong? Maybe they don’t like me and don’t want to be my friend anymore…I feel alone’, can we encourage challenging and changing that response? Challenge: ‘Could there be another reason that the person hasn’t texted you back?’. Changed response: ‘They could be busy doing any number of things and they’ll respond when they can’.
Typically, for a preventative programme to work, participants have to accept a degree of perceived vulnerability. The pandemic resulted in many of us taking loneliness more seriously than we ever have, particularly in terms of its impact on our overall health. As we recover from the pandemic and normal social interactions continue to resume, only time will tell if we will remain committed to fighting loneliness and if that commitment will prevail in educational settings.
Tegan Creedy, COO and cofounder of Happy Space UK.
Happy Space UK believes that prevention is better than cure. The organisation provides bespoke wellbeing resources to schools UK-wide with the aim of preventing mental health problems from arising wherever possible. Find out more here: https://www.happyspace.org.uk/