One is the loneliest number: mitigating the effects of social isolation

Today’s blog post by Policy Whisperer Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) examines the intersection between social isolation and flourishing, particularly for young people. Australians report feeling increasingly lonely, which has alarming cognitive, social and health consequences across the lifespan. It is time to incorporate a proactive, universal approach to ensuring young people know how to create and sustain positive social relationships.

Exclusion in the classroom

I recently attended the Doing School Differently Conference, co-sponsored by Youth+, Berry Street and the Victoria Institute at Victoria University, which focused on flexible and inclusive education.  Educators, researchers, and students enrolled in alternative education programs across Australia shared their experiences over two days. Glaringly absent from the discourse was how to work with “troubled” young people or manage “problem behaviour” in a classroom.  Rather, there was one message that came through across virtually every talk I heard: success comes from healthy, respectful, trusting relationships. It was particularly moving to hear the students explain why they left mainstream settings.  Reasons given were mostly to do with lack of quality relationships – a target for bullying, feeling isolated due to mental health issues or problems in the home. When asked what mainstream schools could do differently, students responded with such statements as: “Be nice to us, show kindness, be respectful to students. Learn our names!” Their experiences with flexible learning, on the other hand, were described with such words as friendly, caring, and understanding. All of them loved attending their flexible school settings.

Are there students who don’t want to learn? The overwhelming observation is that all young people are eager to learn, but some need bridging help, and that help may be quite intensive.  Flexible learning environments tend to have small cohorts and take an individualised, therapeutic approach – these are not programs that can be scaled up. A key component shared across all programs is a focus on comprehensive, multi-pronged approaches to helping students manage the stress they feel, particularly in social situations. When school experiences have been damaging or positive social relationships are not modelled in the home, facilitating positive social interactions involves a deliberate focus on skill-building.  Again – it is all about positive, healthy, respectful relationships. 

Social isolation and human flourishing

Humans are social creatures. When an individual has few social contacts, lives in isolation, or is surrounded by dysfunctional relationships, the effects are life-long. For example, experiencing either social isolation, loneliness and/or living alone increases mortality – yes, death – by approximately 30%. Other research indicates that isolation in and of itself, regardless of whether an individual feels lonely per se, has a direct effect on health and mortality, while for older people feeling lonely is associated with increased incidence of dementia (see also here). Loneliness contributes to poorer cognitive function, faster cognitive decline, increased rates of clinical depression, and social anxiety.  Interestingly, both being bullied and engaging in bullying results in long-term negative life outcomes for most people. Additionally, a sense of social exclusion reduces an individual’s capacity to engage in pro-social behaviours, creating a downward spiral of further isolation.

Chronic, social exclusion – ostracism – leads to feelings of alienation, unworthiness, helplessness and depression, and these feelings are experienced at a higher intensity than those caused by chronic pain.  Recent research indicates that, for young people, there is a direct relationship between social anxiety and suicide riskBeyond Blue tells us that one in four young Australians is currently experiencing a mental health issue, one in 16 is experiencing depression, and one in six is experiencing an anxiety condition. We also know that girls and women are more likely to experience both anxiety and depression and are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of social exclusion. Lifeline Australia tells us that 80% of Australians think loneliness is increasing; distressingly, they also tell us that we are in the midst of a suicide crisis, with a 10+ year high of eight deaths per day. 

Young people and positive relationships

We need a deliberate strategy to ensure that people across the lifespan – but especially our young people, who face unique challenges – know how to create and sustain positive social connection.  In a society that is increasingly fragmented, isolated, and on-line, this can no longer be presumed to be modelled and learned organically. Schools are the logical place to incorporate this work, with support from social service agencies for children and young people with complex needs. Our own research tells us that the middle years (ages 8 – 12) are critical for ensuring that social-emotional skills are in place and the transition to high school is properly supported – and yet funding for programs aimed at middle years is often unavailable, diverted instead to children under the age of 5 of those in their teen years. When funding is available, it is generally targeted at curriculum rather than life skills and well-being.

What needs to be done?  Schools appear to do a stellar job in identifying and referring students with severely compromised mental health, but more can be done to incorporate a universal, preventative approach. The State Government of Victoria’s announcement this week that the Respectful Relationships curriculum will be introduced in all schools next year is very welcome and a wonderful step in the right direction. Flexible learning options need to be properly funded; the intensive, wrap-around approaches are costly to operate. It is also important that mainstream teachers and school staff are both aware of and trained in how to assist students to create and sustain positive relationships, particularly across difference.  High schools must also take a hands-on approach; there seems to be a prevailing attitude that a nurturing environment does not prepare students for “real life” – and yet nothing is farther from the truth. Effective coaching, modelling and teaching of skills to promote positive social-emotional wellbeing is arguably the most important contribution schools can make to assist children and young people to learn well, and there are indications that classroom-based learning has longer-lasting and more positive outcomes than individual interventions.

The research backs this up. Strong, positive friendships and family relationships are protective against bullying, engaging in risk-taking behaviours, and educational disengagement, amongst many other benefits. Additionally, the act of engaging in the pro-social behaviours that underpin healthy relationships have their own list of benefits, including mitigating stress, improving cognitive function, and improving well-being to name a few. The proactive investment in children and young people – even those who experience socio-emotional difficulties (whether intermittently or chronically) – is a key leverage point for lasting impacts.