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Jan 26, 2023 | by Dr Claire Goodfellow

Loneliness in young people: mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools

To help address the evidence gap and better support adolescent mental health we are contributing to the collective understanding around loneliness and wellbeing in young people. Our research explores risk factors for adolescents aged 11-15 and young adults aged 16-24. 

This pioneering project is a collaboration between the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, the Campaign to End Loneliness, the University of Manchester, and Economic and Social Research Council. It is led by Dr. Emily Long at the Institute of Health & Wellbeing Social Sciences at Glasgow University.

Here, lead author Dr. Claire Goodfellow takes us through the findings from the project’s fourth and final academic paper. It reveals important insights and shows a way forward for public health approaches looking to address young people’s mental health.

We know that loneliness is detrimental to both physical and mental health, and we know it is prevalent among young people. 

While previous research has shown that the school a young person attends can be an important factor in relation to their mental health, we want more understanding of how loneliness relates to mental health within school settings.

What did we do?

We used data from 5,286 young people in Scotland to understand:

  • What the key factors are that impact young people’s mental health
  • If greater loneliness is linked to poorer mental health among young people
  • Whether the relationship between loneliness and mental health varies depending on the school a young person attend

The data was collected in 2018 as part of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study (HBSC).  The average age of responders was thirteen and a half.

Key findings

Overall, we found that mental health problems were:

  • more common among female adolescents and those who experience greater loneliness
  • less frequently reported by those with better physical health, and greater life-satisfaction
Social relationships

We found that the following were all associated with better mental health:

  • Good family communication
  • Increased sense of family support
  • Eating a family meal together more often
  • Greater teacher support
  • Greater enjoyment of school

Conversely, a lack of strong social relationships related to poorer mental health

  • Being bullied
  • Higher frequency of contacting friends and family via social media
  • Preferring to communicate online
  • A greater sense of pressure from school work  
Which school a young person goes to has an impact

The school a young person attends can have a varying effect on their mental health. Among young people who are highly lonely, the school they attend has a greater impact on their mental health.

Specifically, we found that the negative impact of loneliness on mental health was stronger in schools which had lower average mental health scores. 

This means that amongst adolescents experiencing loneliness, the school they attend is a key contributing factor to their mental health, and an important area for public health interventions. 

What does this mean in practice?

This is the first study to explore whether the impact of loneliness on mental health is the same across different school contexts, and give us a much broader evidence base. 

These findings suggest that:

  • Public health approaches should encourage whole-school interventions where every member of school staff (not just teachers) are involved  to support adolescent mental health. It means that pupils at risk are more likely to be identified early, and have more ways to access support. These interventions may be particularly important for young people experiencing loneliness.
  • Interventions aiming to reduce loneliness are likely to be particularly important in schools where average mental health is already likely to be low 


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