Inside Ireland’s Youth Loneliness Epidemic

Words: Izzy Copestake

Image: Enda Bowe, (Normal People, BBC)

Ireland is the loneliest country in the EU, and it’s Ireland’s youth who are suffering the consequences.

Lonely: a word usually associated with heartbreak, physical isolation, or old age. Not youth. We’re told youth is the freedom to fuck up a bit, fall in love, take risks, and ultimately use the precious time available with your mates before the responsibility of real adulthood sets in. Think Friends, or literally any Richard Curtis film where an inseparable gang of 20-somethings muddle from day-to-day, or relationship-to-relationship, without the price of simply getting by standing in their way. This ideal of youth, sold to us by pop culture and the nostalgia of older generations, has become just that: an ideal.

An EU study published this year found that young people are more at risk of loneliness than the elderly, with Ireland being the loneliest country overall. One in five people in Ireland feel this way, compared to the European average of 13%. Looking at the country in 2023, can we be entirely surprised? The euphoric chaos and connection attributed to youth seems like a distant hazy dream in the current economic climate, especially as socialising with your mates can mean watching in utter horror as €6.50 exits your account for a single pint of Guinness.

Love life aside, the cost of simply surviving in Ireland as a young person has threatened the most basic relief from loneliness: meeting up with friends. With many getting a second job, and others simply not having the funds to agree to an expensive pint or €4 flat white in town, the basic need to socialise has become a luxury many people cannot afford, or simply do not have the time to spare. Yes, there are free activities, but with so many people living in their parents homes and Ireland now entering the depths of winter, ask yourself: would you go for a lockdown-style baltic can in Phoenix Park just to see a mate?

“It’s very had to search for someone who’s warm and funny and spontaneous… you’re searching for someone who’s tall, or not, or 18-24, or lives in Mayo.”

Cyberpsychologist Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton on online dating

Naturally, this means many people are staying in touch with their mates or dating via the only feasible free option out there: online. Speaking about the rise of online dating cyberpsychologist Dr. Nicola Fox Hamilton says the the seemingly large number of options available doesn’t actually fix the problem. ‘Actually, the research on the psychology of choices and decision making shows that having fewer options is actually better. We tend to be happier with our decisions, we think less about the trade-offs we had to make to make this decision. So 6 to 8 choices is actually the ideal, and when you think about something like Tinder, you have hundreds of choices. People end up seeing so many options and thinking, there might be somebody even better.’

Unsurprisingly, this kind of dating has become infiltrated by the very thing that pushed people out of in-person dating and into the digital sphere: the economy. ‘This can also bring with it a shopping mentality, a consumer mentality, about yourself as well as other people. You can start looking at people with a checkbox list, a lot of the time you search for people on a dating site, it isn’t about these characteristics. It’s very hard to search for someone who’s warm and funny and spontaneous… you’re searching for someone who’s tall, or not, or 18-24, or lives in Mayo.’

The impact of an upbringing characterised by physical isolation can follow you, even after moving away for college. The heavy financial load this imposes, coupled with little or no foundation of school friends to rely on once the move is made, can make things tough.  ‘I think the unique Irish culture of staying quite tethered to home whilst being in college also contributes to a struggle because people rely on their friendships from school a lot more.’

The growing number of lonely young people in Ireland is sad, but it’s also dangerous. The impact of chronic loneliness is thought to be worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s linked to dementia, cardiovascular disease, a short life span, and more obviously, depression and anxiety. What’s worse, is that over 1/4 of people feel shame about their loneliness. The stigma attached to feeling this during youth can exasperate the problem, forcing young people at risk to isolate themselves further. It’s deeply painful and physically unhealthy, but it’s also not your fault. Ireland’s youth loneliness epidemic has been festering for years, and as the cost of living soars, its reached crisis point

*Names have been changed