How design can help tackle social isolation and loneliness in graduates
Words by SAM ROBERTS
Britain is currently facing a loneliness epidemic, with around 9 million people affected by the problem (Red Cross, Co-Op, 2016). While we often associate loneliness with the elderly, loneliness is most prone in young adults (Mental Health Foundation, 2010).
Over 55,000 people took part in the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment, which found that 10% of people aged 16 to 24 were “always or often” lonely – the highest proportion of any age group and three times higher than people aged 65 and over (BBC.co.uk, 2018). New research from Sainsbury’s Living Well Index also states the UK’s sense of wellbeing has decreased in the past twelve months, with loneliness identified as a key characteristic of those affected (Oxford Economics, 2017).
Loneliness has many negative health effects, ultimately leading to premature death (Holt-Lunstad, 2010). Frederick Downes, a Doctor from Surrey, notes that “loneliness and social isolation are recognised contributory factors of depression.” He uses a “risk assessment tool called ‘SAD PERSONS’, which creates a score for someone’s chance of committing suicide. Having “no social support is one factor”. Strong social connections are vital to our fundamental health.
A key period of risk for developing an increased sense of loneliness arises at transitional moments in people’s lives. When social networks are challenged or split, e.g. through the break-up of a relationship, this can reduce opportunities for “easy social contact” and “threaten self-identity” (Red Cross, Co-Op, 2016).
In young adults, a major transitional period occurs when a student graduates from university. Mental health decline after university is an issue that has been overlooked, with a severe lack of research papers investigating the topic. During a self-conducted survey with 106 recent graduates, 52% of respondents stated that their mental health has “declined since leaving university”. Despite this being a small sample of participants, it indicates that post-graduate wellbeing should be a much greater concern. Frederick Downes, a Doctor from Surrey, acknowledges that “at universities, there are lots of support systems. Helplines like Nightline are promoted, however outside of university, the first port of call is visiting your GP”.
On campus, it is relatively easy to make new friends; most universities have a range of societies and sports clubs for students to share common interests. According to the Royal Society Interface, shared interests are the key to friendship; “we choose our friends mainly because we have shared interests and not necessarily because we like them the most” (Sanchiz et al., 2016). Universities provides the platform for students to share common interests, making it much easier to form new friendships than in the outside world.
In a self-conducted survey of 106 graduates, over one-quarter of respondents state they have not made new friends since graduating. For those that have, this is primarily through “work”. There is a strong design opportunity to combine making graduates feel part of the community with outside-of-work activities.
Currently, Sainsburys are trialling a scheme to tackle loneliness called “Talking tables” (About.sainsburys.co.uk, 2018). Researchers found that some key contributions to loneliness were eating alone and being on social media for more than 7 hours a day (Oxford Economics, 2017). These tables ban social media and aim to prompt conversations with strangers to build a closer support network within the local community. While the focus of this initiative was towards loneliness in the elderly, a similar scheme for recent graduates could be proposed.
Up to half of new graduates return to their parental home (Ons.gov.uk, 2017). These young adults often feel socially isolated due to large travel distances between themselves and university friends. John*, a Sport Science graduate from Brunel University, sees his friends on average once a month since moving back to Devon, a 6 hour round trip away from his friends. This is a dramatic contrast from seeing them everyday which makes him feel “very lonely” (Appendix C). John is not alone; over 70% of graduates from the self- conducted survey felt their relationship with university friends has suffered as a result of distance after finishing their studies, despite using social media to stay in contact.
According to the Sainsbury’s Living well index, “chatting to neighbours and a strong support network” are key factors in living more fulfilled lifestyles (Oxford Economics, 2017). Graduates often move to new cities for work opportunities, and 44% stated that they “rarely” or “never” felt a part of their community. Reconnecting graduates to local communities could be an effective remedy for their loneliness and social isolation. The Jo Cox commission also notes that creating “connection-friendly communities” is one strategy to tackle our loneliness epidemic (Jo Cox Commission, 2016).
People have difficulty prioritising social events when they lack energy (Red Cross, Co-Op, 2016). Alex*, a Brunel University History graduate, is working 48 hours a week in Nando’s to save up money. This impacts on his social life because he frequently feels “too exhausted” to see his friends . Graduates are “underpaid and overworked” (Sarah Newman, 2018), just like Alex. Attempting to reduce social exhaustion is a potential area for design consideration.
Bringing graduates together locally through a shared interest will allow them to gain a sense of involvement in the local community and ultimately make friends with people at similar stages of life. Studies have found that shared interests are the key to friendship (Sanchiz et al., 2018), and should be at the heart of the design solutions in order for graduates to form meaningful connections within their community.
Graduate mental health matters just as much as current students. Let’s do more, starting with investigative research and design implementation surrounding graduate loneliness and social isolation.
*Names have been changed
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BBC News. (2018). Loneliness more likely in young. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43711606 [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].
Bbc.co.uk. (2018). BBC – 16-24 year olds are the loneliest age group according to new BBC Radio 4 survey – Media Centre. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2018/loneliest-age-group-radio-4 [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. and Layton, J. (2018). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. [online] North Carolina, p.p14. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316&type=printable [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].
Jo Cox Commission (2016). Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time. A call to action. [online] Available at: https://www.jocoxloneliness.org/pdf/a_call_to_action.pdf [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Seungjae Lee, D., Lin, N. and Shablack, H. (2013). Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults.
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Ons.gov.uk. (2017). Young adults living with their parents – Office for National Statistics. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/datasets/youngadultslivingwiththeirparents [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].
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Sanchiz, E., Ibarra, F., Nikitina, S., Baez, M. and Casati, F. (2018). What Makes People Bond?: A Study on Social Interactions and Common Life Points on Facebook. 1st ed. [ebook] Trento: Tte. Cantaluppi y G. Molinas, p.2. Available at: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1609.05334.pdf [Accessed 25 Oct. 2018].
Sarah Newman, M. (2018). Social Exhaustion: Avoiding Introvert Burnout. [online] World of Psychology. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/blog/social-exhaustion-avoidingintrovert-burnout/ [Accessed 25 Oct. 2018].