23-year-long study shows teenage loneliness increases adult mental illness risk by 20%


Cambridge University conducted research over two decades on 2600 Norwegian participants to understand how loneliness in adolescence can increase the possibility of mental disorders like depression and psychosis in adulthood. 

Loneliness vs being alone: Loneliness is an emotional state of feeling disconnected and shallow with others and self. Consistent difficulties in maintaining inter-personal and intra-personal relationships can increase the feeling of loneliness. A person may feel lonely even in a crowd or a room full of his or her friends. On the other hand, being alone does not necessarily mean that a person feels lonely. Many people who relocate for work can often feel alone due to distance from their close ones but may not have feelings of loneliness.

According to the study, out of all the participants who were adolescents facing difficulty in dealing with loneliness; 12% have taken medicines for one disorder whereas 7% of people have been prescribed medicines for two categories of mental disorders.

Read More; Loneliness: Types, Impact and Strategies for Coping

The paradox: The study signifies loneliness as the risk factor for mental illness. However, the possibility cannot be denied that it might be an underlying mental illness that already persists and gradually grows over the years of adolescence. 

Why are teenagers more prone to loneliness?: The transition from childhood to adolescence comes with a lot of uncertainty. With physical and hormonal changes, social as well as psycho-emotional components are affected as well.

Social Relationships: The most significant factor is difficulty in maintaining social relationships. As per Erikson’s psycho-developmental theory, a teenager explores his role and identity at this age. Maintaining relationships with parents, peers and other agencies can be difficult to deal with.

Exam and vocational stress: In our society where exams and their scores are used to classify children, adolescents have an unhealthy atmosphere of always achieving high. Teenagers can also develop unhealthy competition with peers, causing a disturbance in a stable friend circle. With the studies, choosing a direction of occupation comes along, a teenager is often fixated on pursuing more prevalent streams like medicine or law. With less information and experience, decision-making at this stage is indeed quite difficult.

How to deal with loneliness in adolescents: Loneliness persists when it is not recognized at the right time and goes without intervention can persists, paving a broader pathway of mental health disorders, if not now, then in adulthood.

Parents and nurture: Parents are the primary caregivers of a child and a teenager. The way a child has its upbringing defines a lot.  A healthy and expressive relationship with parents can drastically reduce the probability of loneliness as well as other risk factors for mental illnesses. Having a positive environment at home where a teenager feels secure with is his own identity and deeper connection with his parents helps in identifying and intervening with loneliness at an early stage.

Peer Interaction and Bullying: In the adolescent period, it is important to ensure that the child gets sustainably friendly with his classmates and other peers to have a healthy and holistic social development. It is to be focused on that bullying is not only in physical terms but can have indirect ways to cause emotional turmoil. Avoidance of one member of a friend group, body shaming, unhealthy competition and cyberbullying can also make the adolescent manifest feelings of loneliness.

Identifying early: For the adolescent itself along with parents and educational agencies, to be aware of the psycho-emotional state is the most crucial element. Most of the time, loneliness is not considered as an issue. This is where most people can go wrong even if they want to help an adolescent. Recognizing that it adversely affects mental health now and in the long run is the first step of intervention.

Prevention of mental illness: With loneliness, the probability of manifesting a mental disorder is severely increased. Laying a groundwork and providing an atmosphere that reduces such illness is magnificently beneficial. Having a regular check on mental well-being and formulating customized coping strategies can go a mile. 

Citations +
  • Rodríguez-Cano R, Lotre K, von Soest T, Rognli EB, Bramness JG. Loneliness in adolescence and prescription of psychotropic drugs in adulthood: 23-year longitudinal population-based and registry study. BJPsych Open. 2024;10(2):e61. doi:10.1192/bjo.2024.22
  • Farrell, A. H., Vitoroulis, I., Eriksson, M., & Vaillancourt, T. (2023). Loneliness and Well-Being in Children and Adolescents during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review. Children, 10(2), 279.
  • King’s College London. (n.d.). Loneliness in adolescence: how can we support young people?
  • Neuroscience News. (2024, May 17). Loneliness may predict mental health issues.
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