A new study finds that young people are reporting loneliness in increasing numbers and at a rate outpacing that of their elderly counterparts. Jayne O’Donnell reports on the study’s findings. USA TODAY
The United Nations declared July 30 as “International Day of Friendship.” It’s based on “the recognition of the relevance and importance of friendship as a noble and valuable sentiment in the lives of human beings around the world,” notes the U.N.
So it may come as a surprise to learn just how lonely human beings are these days, especially the adults of Generation Z, those born from 1997 onward, according to Pew Research Center.
Researchers discovered 18- to 22-year-olds suffer from loneliness more than any other age group — from millennials and Gen X-ers to Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation.
America’s youngest adults feel lonely the most, at 48.3 percent, and the country’s oldest group feels the least lonely, at 38.6 percent, according to a large Cigna study. The global health services company provides health, disability and life insurance. In partnership with independent research firm Ipsos, Cigna interviewed 20,000 U.S. adults using the UCLA Loneliness Scale to analyze loneliness in America.
Some mental health and wellness professionals were perplexed by the research, or at least different aspects of the findings.
“I’m surprised by the study’s results because that’s college age, when, next to high school, you’re pretty much set up to connect with people. We know in middle age it’s harder to make new friends,” said Adriana Velez, a health coach based in White Plains.
“We know everybody is different, but for a lot of us, we need that sense of community and to have people in our corner who we can talk about our problems with, who we can help and who we can rely on, who won’t abandon us.”
People mired in their own isolation are turning to the tragic answer more frequently in the U.S. in recent decades.
Suicide rates on the rise
Suicide rates have risen in nearly every state between 1999 and 2016, reaching 45,000 suicides by people 10 and older in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the 10th most common cause of death, and one of only three causes that’s rising.
Feeling alone intensifies uncomfortable emotions, as well as mental illness, diagnosed or not. Researchers defined loneliness as feeling isolated, like no one understands what you’re going through or no one really knows you. It’s a recurring emotion that often accompanies mental illness.
However, mental illness is not required.
Also note, feeling lonely is different than simply being alone, said Lauren Saler, a psychologist who works primarily with young adults, ages 18 to early 20s, and has a private practice in Ardsley.
“I think it’s important to enjoy our own company. I think we need to be comfortable with that,” Saler said. “But if those feelings are there and it bothers you, then it’s absolutely worth getting some help and support around it.”
Loneliness could be due to underlying anxiety and depression, she said.
One in 6 adults in the United States suffer from a mental health condition, and mental health issues are one of the most rapidly increasing causes of long-term sick leave, reports Cigna.
Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity, Cigna says, citing a 2010 report.
Technology is a mixed bag
Ironically, when it comes to connection, Gen Z-ers fall to the back of the line. These young people may have swiped iPhone screens to watch their favorite cartoons before they could talk or walk, but they’ve grown up lacking deep, intimate connections with others IRL (in real life, for those not versed in phone text-speak).
“This generation documents their life so much through social media, but they’re only showing the happy side. Peers can look at that, and it…