Meaningful Connections

Contacts do not equal connection. For adolescents, simply having encounters with others is not enough to be a protective factor against the negative effects of loneliness. It is the meaningful connections youth have that help shield them from what the US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls the “Loneliness Epidemic” and other negative consequences such as suicide attempts and death.

Loneliness is a state of mind or the subjective experience of feeling disconnected, empty, alone, unwanted and craving human connection and being prevented or deterred from doing so for various reasons. Being separated from others or socially isolated can be a contributing factor to loneliness; however, it is not the same thing and loneliness is not always the result. Many youths can be alone and not feel lonely – some prefer it. Conversely, an adolescent could be surrounded by a room full of people and feel extremely lonely and disconnected. It is the feelings of disconnection and loneliness that can lead a youth down the path of suicide risk.

Worthlessness, hopelessness, purposelessness, and burdensomeness live in the intersection of adolescent loneliness and suicide. During a time when adolescents are trying to belong, fit in and discover who they are, these unwanted emotions can wreak havoc on their psyche. On a cellular level, the body reacts to these emotions when they are experienced pervasively. This results in inflammation in the body’s cells that send signals to the brain that make it “irritable, suspicious, prone to negative emotions and fearful of meeting new people and making new friends.” This process can negatively impact how the adolescent understands tone of voice or facial expressions and can alter their understanding of social cues and the world around them. In response, others may distance themselves from the adolescent, reinforcing the negative cycle that leads to further loneliness and possible increased suicidality.

Adolescent experiences ranging from loneliness, lack of engagement and disconnection to suicide ideation, can all lead to the same negative outcome. The need to build relationship skills and foster meaningful relationships is vitally necessary to combat overall suicide risk and improve mental wellbeing among adolescents.

When considering the wellbeing of adolescents in the long-term, we should consider the following and monitor which factors adolescents have regular access to:

Author:  Laura Leone, DSW, MSSW, LMSW

Consultant for the National Council for Mental Wellbeing