“Wanting to be special and wanting to be just like everyone else” Young people, mental health and loneliness

In a lonely place

The following is a slightly extended text of opening remarks delivered by Mark Brown at ‘Mental Health Question Time: Should tackling loneliness be a priority in efforts to improve young people’s mental health?’ at UCL on 3rd December 2018.

Loneliness is hard for someone who has never experienced it to understand. Loneliness is hard to understand when you’re going through it, especially when you’re young. The loneliness that comes from having difficulties that eat away at your ability to do what everyone does to not feel lonely even more so. Being young is often a horrible mix of wanting to be special and wanting to be just like everyone else.

I described my own lonely mental adolescence like this: “Loneliness is not the condition of having no one to talk to or to be around. That more correctly describes isolation. True loneliness is like knowing that you are an intricate machine of clockworks and flywheels and gears, waiting to be set in motion but never finding the rightly gauged cog to set your workings turning.” I didn’t find ways to be the self I actually am until years later. You’re a young person, strictly speaking, up until you’re about twenty five. I am old and a fair few of you listening are still young. I’m doing my best not to talk over you.

As a young person you are at your most adaptable and most vulnerable. Your understanding of the world doesn’t keep pace with your experience of it. The experience of growing up is being confronted with things you can’t quite fathom yet. Young people too often are forced to experience things that no adult should experience. Young people don’t make the world they’re born into but do their best to make the best of it.

I worked for with the programme director of a big five year programme that was trying to work out whether young people experiencing mental health difficulties could develop mental health supports and mental health related opportunities for other people. At the end of the five year programme one of the strong messages was that young people are fantastic at coming up with ideas that might help other young people, and get a lot out of doing so, but they need people who can show them the ropes. Whether that’s mentors, youth workers, inspirational teachers, dickheads who sit on panel discussions, parents or older community members young people’s invention and drive needs something to key to or it whirrs off into either boundless optimism or grand despair. They need people to work with, people who have the benefit of experience without cynicism.

As I said earlier this year, the worst of all worlds is where ‘involving young people’ involves research guessing what they’re like and young people guessing at what solutions will work and neither doing the bit of the job to which they’re best suited.” Younger people need us, some of us may still be young ourselves, to help them to see what’s possible and our experience to help them to see ways to get to it.

What we all need, young or not is a place to be ourselves, a place to be with others and a place to be something. And, perhaps, people to show us how to become ourselves along the way. If we miss some of those things because we are unwell, or in the wrong situation, it can take a lifetime to catch up. If you think no one was lonely in the past, imagine being mental in 1950, or gay or trans in a tiny village in the 1930s.

Young people are always trying to solve their own problems, no matter how imperfect the solutions they arrive at. This is as true around mental health and loneliness, as it is around anything else. Rather than scoffing at their attempts, it’s our role as people who have done more to be useful in making those first lumpy attempts into second, third and fourth better ones.

Young people talk about social media and loneliness, for example, often using the language they pick up from us, even when it isn’t that helpful. We as a society have decided that social media use is the opposite of having real relationships because that the obvious thing that’s different from when those of us over 40 were kids. “People laugh at the lists of hashtags on young people’s social media profiles defining which ‘tribe’ they belong to, but this is as much a cry for fellowship as it is a strident cry of individualism.” As I said in piece a while back ““Discomforts around young people’s social media use often come coated in nostalgia and prescriptions for a life which for many young people has no chance of existing. Running through fields of wheat and filling an i-spy book with bullfinches and grebes is not on the agenda for many teenagers right now. Young people are growing to adulthood in a country that is different from the country that existed before the arrival of ubiquitous connection via smartphones and social media. Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.”

The world you made your relationships in doesn’t exist anymore. Young people can help make other young people feel OK to be themselves if we help them to find ways of finding each other in the first place.

Earlier this year I wrote about the ONS finding that young renters often felt lonely. High rents, low wages and long hours and commutes means there isn’t any time left for making friends or finding lovers: “Forever delaying the establishment of friends, family and community relationships as the conservative home-owning dream of two kids, two cats, a big kitchen and a welcome mat recedes is creating a timebomb of social debt, of communities weakened and friendships lost or never made. Unless something changes and this crisis of social reproduction is averted, young and lonely renters are likely to become older, lonely renters — and the cycle will continue.”

Young people didn’t make this world but they have to live in it.

I look at the things young people have done to help and support each others mental health and I wish I’d known young people like them when I was young. I would not have been one of them. I would have been too scared.

I needed someone to help me to be brave.


This speech was delivered on the same day as ‘Mental health and loneliness, or, “The impossibility of comprehending loneliness in the mind of those not lonely”’.



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Mark Brown

Mark Brown


Mark Brown edited One in Four, mental health mag 2007–14. Does mental health/tech stuff for cash (or not). Writes for money. Loves speaking. Get in touch