Unpicking the focus on the individual in loneliness research: A co-produced study on youth loneliness amidst COVID-19 Pandemic, lockdown and physical distancing
Concerns about loneliness, isolation and mental health issues were a prominent feature of the discourse surrounding the COVID-19 Pandemic. For loneliness researchers the pandemic presented an unparalleled natural experiment as individuals, families and communities encountered and sought to navigate loneliness and isolation. The Left on Read project explored young people’s experiences of loneliness, isolation and mental health issues during the ‘lockdown’, using online meetings and creative and arts-based methods. Initially we aimed to co-produce arts materials for other young people to stage ‘Homelab’ encounters in their homes. This purpose was superseded by the outpouring of creativity as people decorated their homes and windows, and artists and arts organisations scrambled to create offerings of activities for people to do in their homes, online or outside spaces. As is often the case with co-produced research, which develops collaboratively and eventfully with co-researchers or what are usually called the ‘participants’ (Duggan, 2021); the focus of the project shifted and followed the interests of the young people involved in the inquiry.
A strength of co-produced research is that it has novel beginnings, asks different questions, and disrupts academic discourses or conceptualisations of particular issues. Left on Read was a follow-on study to Loneliness Connects Us, the first large-scale study to explore youth loneliness with young people through co-produced research drawing on creative and arts-based methods. Grounded in the everyday lives and concerns of young people, the research found that discussions of youth loneliness must include young people’s experiences of poverty, inequality and precarity aligned with processes of neoliberalisation (Batsleer and Duggan, 2020). The research found that that the competitive individualism in education and living successful social lives engendered pressures on young people, feelings of isolation and shame that were interrelated with experiences of loneliness. We continued this orientation in the Left on Read project by focusing on the significance of individualising accounts of loneliness in relation to tendencies towards stigmatisation, within the context of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Thinking loneliness beyond the individual
The Minister for Loneliness, Dianna Barran introduced Emerging Together: the Tackling Loneliness Network Action Plan stating, ‘The government’s approach to tackling loneliness aims to put the individual at the heart of the solution.’ (DCMS, 2021: n.p.) This focus on the individual aligns both with the imposition of forms of competitive individualism under neoliberalism but also dominant conceptualisations and methodologies for researching loneliness. For example, Perlman and Peplau (1981: 32) define loneliness, ‘as a discrepancy between one's desired and achieved levels of social relations.’ Similarly, the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau and Cutrona, 1980) is the leading measure of loneliness and from the items asked (e.g. “I feel isolated,” “There are people I can talk to,” “I feel part of a group of friends”) it is evident that these locate loneliness as an individual self-reporting his or her feelings. Furthermore, conceptualisations of the emergence and spread of loneliness such as emotional contagion (Cacioppo, Fowler and Christakis, 2009) represents the problematic implications of thinking of individualisation of loneliness beyond the single individual. It is important to think how young people might interpret such ideas and develop folk understandings of what it means to be lonely or know another lonely young person as though they are the Malarial mosquito, a vector of social disintegration (Batsleer and Duggan, 2020).
Left on Read drew on co-produced, creative and arts-based methods (Bell and Pahl 2018), working with the capacity of arts methods to create complex, relational and productive engagements with research subjects (Rotas and Springgay 2014). The original aim was to work with the group of youth co-researchers to create a series of ‘Homelab’ encounters, that is creative and arts-based activities that other young people could stage and encounter in their own homes, outside spaces or online according to the rules of lockdown. The research developed through 24 weekly meetings, held on a secure online platform with video, audio, chat, and draw functions. The meetings brought together 9 young people with two adults, leads for leads for research, and youth work and arts practice. We also invited arts practitioners to join the sessions and provide inspiration and new artistic practices to lead online sessions with the group.
As the research progressed and the pandemic continued our aspirations for what we could achieve changed. In part, so many other artists and cultural institutions created arts activities for young and families that there seemed little point in duplicating this work. Instead we developed the research by developing combinations of constraints and resources to provoke and challenge thinking and feeling in new ways about loneliness (Duggan, 2021), and attuning to ‘what matters’ amongst the productive potentials that are created through these processes (Stengers, 2021: 85). We conceived and enacted a diverse and expansive range of research practices. Two of these practices relevant here are: One, we worked with the poet Helen Mort to write collaborative poetry as a way of thinking loneliness beyond ourselves as individuals. Two, we engaged with Cassie Thornton’s (2020) Hologram model to explore different logics and ways of relating to one another in a mental health context.
The research aimed to attune to what matters through the collaborative encounters and experiences with one another as we lived through the pandemic, especially in relation to ideas of individuality and the project form of the research.
One, there is a long tradition of thinking mental health issues and distress beyond the individual (e.g. Smail, 2009) but we found it useful and productive to think and feel in various ways about ourselves and our lives that do not individualise loneliness and mental health issues. It is no easy task to think about ourselves and one another without beginning in our position – as me, James Duggan, for example – but through collaborative poetry writing and the other arts and creative encounters we were able we found ways of thinking and feeling loneliness that were more relational, embodied, affective and more-than-human accounts of loneliness perhaps focusing on a speculative and pragmatic idea of the event.
Two, the pandemic unsettled much in our lives including academic identities and sensibilities in terms of what action we ought to take to help in particular vulnerable communities (Duggan and Hackett, 2020). As principal investigator I struggled to navigate the emotional, social and ethical implications of developing a project on youth loneliness during a time when many young people were experiencing isolation and a lack of support. We realised that although participating in arts activities was important, what we really valued was being part of a group, supporting and caring for one another. The challenges of providing a broad range of young people with access to such a group would challenge existing approaches to developing projects and services with young people. Instead we are interested in thinking in terms of enabling emotional infrastructures of care (Berlant 2016); alternative forms of sociability such as social and emotional commons (Stavrides 2016); and new imaginaries of what services and projects could be in terms of different ideas of expertise, resource and relationships (e.g. Thornton, 2020).
Making shifts both in relation to the focus of our theories and practices (i.e. the lonely individual) and the social and material relations that structure our engagement with young people (i.e. the research project).
Strengths and limitations
- The research identifies new ways of engaging with youth loneliness, unsettling discourses and practices that over-emphasise the individual and link with tendencies to blame and stigmatise young people experiencing loneliness.
- The COVID-19 Pandemic foregrounds a future of increasing societal disruption due to climate breakdown, the research identifies the limitations of organising research as a project and the need to develop new arrangements appropriate to working in ongoing emergencies.
- The research developed according to methodological commitments from speculative and process philosophy (e.g. Whitehead, 1978; Shaviro, 2009; Massumi, 2011) which focuses on the development of techniques for arranging encounters with experiences and attuning to what is produced. There are, of course, many who will see this only as small-scale and exploratory research.
- The implications and possibilities of thinking and practicing differently – not engaging with the liberal Western individual or not developing research and youth work as a project – is not something that easily aligns with the existing approaches for, for example, youth work and broader public services.
Implications for practice
- It is important to think through how academic ideas about loneliness – in particular those that focus on the individual and contagion – create particular emphases that it is important to unpick in the development or design of projects and services.
- Recommendations for lonely young people often communicate an imperative for the individual young person to take some action (e.g. write a poem, connect with nature) which is fine as far as it goes but it tends to individualise loneliness with them and ‘responsibilise’ them for fixing their situation.
Statement of interests
James Duggan is a member of the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network UCL.
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