Isolation and Connection

In a recent conversation with friends and colleagues, I have been interested to hear about their experiences of isolation and interconnectedness during lockdown. One prominent theme was how reliant many felt they and their children were on institutions (schools, workplaces and clubs) for their social connections. One friend pointed to a profound sense of loss in her children after 3 or 4 weeks of lockdown due to the realisation that the friends they would see every day were not present and at their side. This loss was especially acute for younger children who did not use social media or gaming as an alternative method to socialise and whose friendships as well as positive relationships with an adult outside of the family were focused around the school. A Lancet article published in April pointed out the importance of school routines as coping mechanisms for young people and especially those with mental health issues. They offer a way of escaping the effects of depression, offer structure and opportunities for socialising and support.

Schools, workplaces, sports clubs etc. all play a critical role in creating a community for ourselves and our children. Schools especially generate a model for learning positive social skills that will be a model for future relationships in adulthood. UNESCO reported that 90% of learners worldwide were not in education as of April 2020. The sudden removal of these frameworks for engaging with others has left many feeling isolated and lonely. In my own house, my five-year-old son was lucky enough to have his four (in March three) year olds brother to play with but sitting with him on Google classroom his face lit up when his friends logged in for a lesson. We arranged Zoom playdates with friends, but they were not the same as the tactile playdates, and lunchtime fun had at school. This was echoed by a colleague with teenage children whose son at first was fine socialising online with friends via games or social media. However, as time past, he came to recognise the critical role of face to face and physical contact in our friendships.

Isolation and loneliness were on the agenda before lockdown with the impact on older people widely discussed and researched by Age UK. They importantly outlined the distinction between the two and that loneliness can be present even when one is surrounded by people. This discussion around loneliness and isolation has now widened in the advent of Covid-19 with research ongoing related to the impact on children and young people.  In a recently released NHS Digital report, one in ten 11 to 22-year-olds reported often or always feeling lonely. In terms of isolation many among 5 to 16-year-olds, 12.3% felt that they did not have a friend, 13.3% felt that they did not have an adult at school, and 9.8% felt there was no family member outside the home that they could turn to for support.

This made us all think about the importance of children understanding that friendships and other relationships need to be tended to so that they flourish for all involved. I have worked with many young people who at the end of college, school or upon leaving the sixth form are at a loss of there wider social infrastructure suddenly not being present. The emotional impact of this change of context can feel traumatic and alienating to many young people, and similar experiences were reported by young people across the UK during lockdown. In an article in the Lancet published in April 2020, 83% of young people already suffering from mental health felt their condition had worsened due to the pandemic. In a large scale meta-analysis of 51,000 children and teenagers related to child mental health, isolation and pandemics carried out in June this year concluded that Children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and most likely anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends. Children and young people need support to ensure they have the skills to build and maintain positive relationships within and outside of the structures and routines of school.

Fortunately, are some important projects related to loneliness and isolation taking place across the country which is starting to demonstrate a positive impact on individual and community wellbeing. The work of Dr Julian Abel and his team at Compassion Communities UK show the potential that a compassion led approach can bring to helping individuals to flourish and communities to strengthen even during Coivd 19. His excellent Ted Talk outlines the impact that the project has had on the mental and physical wellbeing of participants with plenty of lessons to take away for communities across the UK from a community care context.

At Compassion Matters, our compassion education project, we teach children about the importance of compassion as a method of appreciating and building their interconnectedness with others. Compassion requires individuals to become more aware of others, their feelings and ideas, especially others suffering. It also requires that individual to find a solution to alleviate suffering in the form of an act of kindness. These can form the basis of positive, respectful relationships with others, the community as a whole and also their wider surroundings. At the heart of the project is a desire to see children bring a deeper level of thought to their social interactions, appreciate them in a more profound way and actively contribute to their communities at home and school. The path to greater wellbeing involves a network of social connections that individuals tend too and engage with an outcome of community and individual flourishing.

Compassion Matters is an education project from the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion, registered charity no.1164491.