Mental health in young people: Loneliness and addiction

There are many reasons why people suffer with poor mental health and these can often be connected to drug and/or alcohol addiction. The BBC’s Loneliness Experiment in collaboration with Welcome Collection recently documented that those in the age range of 16-24 are currently at the highest risk of suffering with their mental health. My experience as a counsellor and someone who collaborates closely with people in addiction has shown me that there is a common thread running between the two - at the core is loneliness, isolation and disconnection. 


What came first?

We know that the connection between mental health and addiction is intricately linked and trying to figure out which came first is not always an easy task. If a young person is experiencing loneliness or another mental health condition, the use of alcohol and drugs may help them to cope; giving them self-confidence, connecting them to a group of people doing the same as them. Yet, all of this is only a short-term solution to the underlying problems.

Young people can start to use drugs and alcohol as a way of coping, not knowing that they are covering up a mental health condition. Long-term use of drugs and alcohol will hide a serious mental health condition, which might only get diagnosed later in adult life when they come out of addiction.

We also know this is just as much the opposite way around. Addiction can be a triggering factor for mental health conditions in a young person. Those with a family history of mental health conditions can be predisposed to poor mental health, so the use of alcohol and drugs can rapidly start this process off for them.

What's the solution?

Education on the dangers of alcohol and drugs within schooling is vitally important, so young people are aware of the risks they face. Just as important is the change in the educational system that is now making young people aware of their mental health and how to speak about this and get support. Echoing this, the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) has just petitioned to the government to make it legislation that all schools have a counsellor working daily as mandatory. 

One of the main contributors to someone’s poor mental health or addiction will be their disconnection from friends, loved ones, society and often themselves. When an individual is suffering with their mental health - whether it be depression, anxiety, stress or addiction - they can feel alone in the world, as though no one understands them or what they are going through.

It is difficult to reach out and ask for help. People can feel like they are a burden to others and, at times, the guilt and shame they are going through can be a block for them.

It can be seen as a sign of weakness, having a mental health condition. All the above can lead to an increased feeling of desperation and loneliness in a young person’s life.

Addiction, as a separate entity, will isolate an individual from all that is healthy in their life. Young adults in addiction can face the prospect of being kicked out of home, and the fear of potentially becoming homeless. They could face the possibility of prison, loss of jobs and friends, whilst facing the prospect of having to go through a complex housing system, due to their age. 

As society has changed, it's now easier than ever to become isolated. You no longer need to leave your home as you can complete all your everyday living from home. You can do your food shopping, pay bills, book holidays, or indulge for days on end on Netflix. It's no wonder at times that young people are feeling increasingly lonelier.

Look around small local towns and see how fewer people are now visiting them. How often do you see people sat in restaurants both looking at their mobile phones and not talking to each other? When was the last time you saw people on a train who were not focused on a device? 

As we see an increase in young people suffering with mental health issues, this raises questions about the society we are creating and how sustainable it is for the future of young people. It is harder and harder for young adults to get jobs right now, which can lead to them feeling as though they are not part of society. Even as an adult, the thought of being out of work for any period is a stressful prospect. 

The continuous rise of house prices means that young people are now living at home longer and not able to find their independence. Finding your way and who you are is an essential part of the identity process for young adults to go through. 

The impact of technology and social media

We have seen an upsurge in gaming and screen addiction over the last five to 10 years, with the ever-increasing availability of social media and the negative impact this has on children. The pressure young people are under now, to look a certain way, be popular, and have the very latest fashion items, can leave many with feelings of inferiority, when they are unable to match up with the ideas and images that are portrayed on social media platforms.

Many young people are using social media and devices to learn about how to have relationships and sex. As they spend more time using this form of communication through these types of platforms, this does not set the groundwork for adult life. Once they realise that this is not how relationships work, this, in turn, leaves them lacking the basic relationship skills, which can be a cause of poor mental health. 

Recent studies have shown how addictive social media can be, especially when young adults are dependent on this to gain their sense of worth and belonging in the world. As adults, we know that the world of social media is false, as you can portray to anyone the image you like.

It is known that designers of apps such as Instagram and Facebook use the colour red to entice people to open their phones, for them to engage more on the social media platforms. These are smart marketing ploys to feed information and target young influential audiences on what they view. 

Apple has just released their latest version of the iOS app to show you how much time you use on your phone, how to lock it down at certain times to stop children overusing it. They are becoming aware of the negative impact that screen time can have on people’s lives.

How to support young people with their mental health

Good mental health is the foundation of young people’s emotional and intellectual growth, underpinning the development of confidence, independence, and a sense of self-worth. Young people who are mentally healthy will have the ability to: 

  • develop psychologically, emotionally, creatively, intellectually, and spiritually 
  • start, develop, and sustain mutually satisfying personal relationships 
  • use and enjoy solitude 
  • become aware of others and empathise with them 
  • play and learn 
  • face problems and setbacks and learn from them 
  • enjoy and protect their physical health 
  • make a successful transition to adulthood at the right time

If you look at the list above of what constitutes good well-being, here lies the answers on how to support a young person who is suffering with their mental health. The task of those working with young people or those who are affected by mental health is to encourage them to access help and support, through whatever form of therapy they find works for them.

This can be found in many forms, whether that be one-to-one therapy, group support or peer support. In many communities now you’re seeing an uprising in community groups to reach disadvantaged people. At these groups, you can find a whole range of holistic approaches such as yoga, mindfulness, mediation, healthy eating, and discussion groups that are aimed to give support at a very low cost and even for free, to give a space where those suffering with their mental health can go.

One key element in supporting a young person with addiction and mental health as a parent is to go outside of the family unit to get your own help. Whilst a young person is going through so many changes and trying to understand themselves and their problems, it will be hard for them to discuss this with you, through fear of upsetting you and not wanting to add more pressure and stress on you.

There are easily assessable services, locally throughout the country like Mind who can offer families support. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hertford, Hertfordshire, SG14
Written by Gary Aldridge, Dip.Couns (MBACP) (FDAP)
Hertford, Hertfordshire, SG14

My background as a counsellor comes from working within the field of mental health and addiction. I have worked in this sector for over 8.5 years. I currently work as a team leader in a residential drug and alcohol treatment centre located within Hertfordshire and have a strong passion for helping those affected with addictions and mental health.

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