Last year I met the loneliest girl in the world. At least, that's how she described herself, and she certainly looked the part, always on her own in class, always on her own at lunchtime.
Sometimes, though, loneliness is less obvious. Other young people at the same school had friends, yet in our art therapy sessions they laid bare their feelings of heart-wrenching loneliness.
According to a recent Australian longitudinal study, 40 per cent of adolescent students believed they had no-one in or outside school who knew them well or who they could trust. (Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, 2015). This is alarming considering that loneliness is "a significant contributor to adolescent suicidality and mental illnesses such as depression and self-harm. Other significant adverse outcomes of loneliness include risky behaviours such as recreational drug use, violence, eating disturbances, obesity and sleep disturbances, alcohol use, and somatic complaints," (Martin, Wood, Houghton, Carroll, & Hattie, 2014).
Loneliness is the difference between the social interaction you'd like to have and the social
interaction you actually have.
The study breaks down loneliness into two main constructs:
connectedness with friends
perception of aloneness.
Many who took part in the study said they enjoyed the benefits of fulfilling friendships: trust, understanding, emotional wellbeing and kindredness. They also reported feeling comfortable being alone, seeking out solo time to relax and unwind, practise hobbbies and enjoy nature.
However 15-30% of young people in the study experienced loneliness which manifested as a deep sense of social isolation, emptiness, worthlessness and loss of control. These students lacked the social skills to make and maintain close friendships, often felt the odd-one-out and had negative perceptions of being alone. Being alone gave these adolescents time to ruminate, deepening their feelings of negativity.
Being alone at school amplified their feelings of ostracism, discomfort and sadness.
How Can Art Therapy Help?
Art Therapy can be used to address negative attitudes to loneliness and overcome self-defeating thought patterns through supported art making with an art therapist.
Lonely children often lack self-disclosure skills, can be extremely self-focused and misinterpret information from the environment and internal world in a way that maintains their negative view (Qualter, 2003).
In a one-on-one Art Therapy session, making art images can help the young person identify and change false perceptions, explore feelings to help develop self-awareness and empathy, and ultimately relate better to others.
Furthermore, the process of making art can help a young person learn to become comfortable with silence, develop mindfulness, resiliency and coping skills, along with art skills which they can use to enjoy time alone.
Art Therapy authority Cathy Malchiodi tells us that the therapist’s ability to provide full attention to a person’s creative process and images, communicates they are seeing and understanding correctly what the person is expressing through art (Malchiodi, 2011). For a lonely young person, this could be the first time they have ever felt truly heard and seen, which can be profoundly healing and increase their confidence to be with others.
How Can Schools Help?
Both Martin and Qualter emphasise that, alongside helping individual students build social skills, a whole school approach is needed to address loneliness,.
Dr Martin offered numerous suggetions for schools, such as adopting a "do no harm" policy, refraining from isolating students as punishment, not letting students choose their own sporting teams, carefully arranging classroom seating, enouraging collaboration rather than competition, clubs such as "chess club", a Friendship Bench, the Circle of Courage program, the Heart of Teaching and Learning program, alone areas, gardens, mentoring programs and peer support, and avoiding student suspensions, which are related to a propensity for suicide.
FInd out more about how Art Therapy can assist lonely youth in socialising and making friends in Part Two: Creating Connections.
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2015). Student Wellbeing literature review, NSW Government Department of Education and Communities.
Malchiodi, C. A. (Ed.). (2011). Handbook of art therapy. Guilford Press.
Martin, K. E., Wood, L. J., Houghton, S., Carroll, A., & Hattie, J. (2014). 'I Don't have the Best Life': A Qualitative Exploration of Adolescent Loneliness. Journal of Child and Adolescent Behaviour, 2014.
Qualter, P. (2003). Loneliness in children and adolescents: What do schools and teachers need to know and how can they help?. Pastoral Care in Education, 21(2), 10-18.