Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

Loneliness and Depression in Young Adults

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Emerging adults are the loneliest generation, despite being more social and more plugged-in than other age groups. Loneliness peaks between the ages of 18 and 29, according to a new research review. And feeling lonely increases the risk of mental health conditions—creating an epidemic of loneliness and depression in young adults.

Loneliness is defined as a mismatch between one’s desired and actual social relationships, between how connected we want to be and how connected we really are. Young adults crave that sense of belonging and connection with others. When their reality falls short, it can be devastating. Loneliness is almost certainly contributing to the high rates of mental health issues among this demographic.

Key Takeaways

  • In a new Gallup poll, 24 percent of young adults report feeling lonely.
  • Loneliness was associated with a 33 percent higher chance of being in treatment for depression.
  • Chronic loneliness can trigger depression, and depression can also lead to loneliness.
  • Lifestyle strategies and mental health support can help young adults make more social connections and prevent or reduce depressive symptoms.

Research on Young Adulthood Loneliness 

Loneliness and depression in young adults has been on the rise for generations, and reached its highest point during the pandemic. A meta-analysis tracked data from 345 studies using the UCLA Loneliness Scale. The data, from 125,000 participants in total, showed that each successive young adult generation is lonelier than the one before. 

A 2023 Gallup poll found that 1 in every 4 young adults feels lonely “a lot of the day.” As high as this percentage is, it’s an improvement from the last several years. At the height of the pandemic, the poll found, 38 percent of young adults (ages 18–29) reported being lonely.

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Why Are Young Adults So Lonely?

At this stage of life, people need more social interaction in order to feel a sense of well-being. Typically, they haven’t yet developed the sense of self and inner confidence that allow them to feel comfortable being alone. Moreover, they need ongoing peer interaction in order to build their identity, strengthen their relationship skills, and help them feel as if they belong.

While that’s true all year round, it becomes even more so during winter, when many young people feel more isolated and less optimistic. Research done with university students found that colder weather was associated with a greater desire for social connection.

Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong—even if you’re surrounded by other people. What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community.

Vivek H. Murthy, MD, US Surgeon General

The Anxiety of Being Alone on Your Device

Young adults typically think of their phones and social media apps as approaches for coping with loneliness. Paradoxically, however, many researchers believe that technology is actually a primary cause of loneliness. DM-ing and commenting are replacing more authentic and satisfying face-to-face human interaction. Virtual connection is more like virtual isolation.

Moreover, social media use increases FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Scrolling through images of their peers having a great time with friends leaves young adults feeling even more isolated and lonely. And trying to present themselves in a perfect light can leave them feeling disconnected from their true self as well as from other people. 

Can Loneliness Cause Depression?

Ever caught yourself wondering, “Am I lonely or depressed?” The difference between loneliness vs. depression can be hard to pinpoint. Just as alone and lonely aren’t necessarily the same thing, feeling lonely doesn’t necessarily lead to depressive symptoms. But can loneliness cause depression? Yes, if other risk factors are part of the equation. 

Young adulthood loneliness can exacerbate or be a catalyst for depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse. Research shows anxiety of being alone too much can escalate into an anxiety disorder or contribute to depression. For example, loneliness during the early stages of the pandemic significantly increased the likelihood of developing depressive symptoms, particularly among young adults.

The 2023 Gallup poll found that one-third of those who reported being lonely were currently being treated for depression or had been treated for depression in the past. That’s nearly triple the level found among survey respondents who did not experience loneliness.

Moreover, the interplay of loneliness and depression in young adults can set off a vicious cycle. While loneliness can trigger depression, mental health issues in turn can create higher levels of loneliness. That’s because the symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as low self-esteem and low energy, often prevent people from reaching out to others and engaging in social activities. 

10 Signs of Chronic Loneliness

Everyone feels lonely now and then. It’s almost impossible for one’s desire for connection to perfectly match up to what’s available, all the time. However, if you find yourself dealing with loneliness frequently, it may be a chronic condition—which heightens the risk of depression. 

The symptoms of chronic loneliness include:

  1. Difficulty connecting with others in a deep and authentic way
  2. Knowing lots of people but not having close friends or a best friend 
  3. Feelings that no one really “gets” you or understands what you’re going through
  4. Anxiety, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating
  5. A sense of being alone and lonely even in the midst of people, at a party or other social event
  6. Self-doubt and lack of self-worth 
  7. Feeling that others don’t reciprocate when you try to connect
  8. Insomnia or other sleep problems
  9. Sense of fatigue and languishing that keep you from engaging in social activities
  10. Self-destructive habits, including drinking too much or abusing drugs

Know the Facts

About half of lonely young adults in a Harvard survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had taken the time to ask how they were doing and make an authentic connection.

8 Strategies for Coping with Loneliness

There are ways to feel less lonely—when you’re alone as well as with others. Here are seven evidence-based strategies for coping with loneliness. 

Limit your social media use. 

Reducing time on the apps is proven to increase well-being. In one study, undergraduates were asked to limit their social media use to 10 minutes per platform, per day for three weeks. Researchers found significant reductions in loneliness and depression in young adults who limited their use, as compared to the control group.

Spend time volunteering. 

Research shows that doing things for others offers mental and physical health benefits. It can also provide opportunities to meet like-minded people who care about the same causes you do.

Get enough sleep. 

It makes sense that loneliness could result in insomnia or troubled sleep, but one study found that sleep loss can cause loneliness. Using fMRI technology, the researchers found that sleep deprivation triggers changes in brain activity that trigger social withdrawal and loneliness.  

Cultivate IRL connections. 

Meaningful real-life friendships may need a bit more tending than virtual ones, but the payoff will be worth it in terms of counteracting loneliness. Strong friendships are proven to reduce loneliness and depression in young adults. If you’re in college, consider joining affinity groups, clubs, an improv or dance troupe, or a Greek organization.

Kayaking and socializing to overcome loneliness and depression in young adults through connection

Find flow. 

New research finds that experiences of flow—being engaged in an enjoyable activity that requires focus and skill—helps people feel less lonely. Where you find flow depends on your specific interests and talents. Dancing, making art, playing a board game, building something, rearranging a room, or cooking can all stimulate flow, along with numerous other experiences.

Get moving with others. 

research review of three dozen studies found that physical activity done in company with others reduces loneliness. Join a team, go to a dance class, take sailing lessons, or recruit a running or walking buddy.

Cuddle up with a blanket and a hot water bottle.

Researchers at the State University of New York and Florida State University found that college students expressed significantly more interest in socializing when asked about it on colder days rather than on warmer days. However, when students wore a heated wrap provided by the researchers, the desire for social closeness decreased. So if you’re feeling lonely on a cold winter night, staying warm and cozy can help.

Check in with a mental health professional. 

Therapy can help young adults answer the question, “Am I lonely or depressed?” and uncover the root causes of loneliness, depression, and/or anxiety.

Treatment for Loneliness and Depression at Newport Institute

At Newport Institute, we recognize that lack of connection is a fundamental issue underlying mental health conditions. Our philosophy of care focuses on supporting young adults to rebuild those connections—with self, family, friends, and their larger community. Through clinical and experiential therapeutic modalities, clients address childhood trauma and attachment ruptures that may have interfered with their ability to form these authentic connections

Young adults in our program gain self-knowledge and life skills, while forming strong and caring relationships with peers and mentors. Our treatment focuses on supporting young people to overcome isolation and find a sense of belonging and hope. Contact us today to find out more about our specialized programming.


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Mental Health / May 4, 2023

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