A recent research study from the University of Chicago into the impact of loneliness upon our overall health presented some staggering findings. Compared with the average person, those in the study who reported being lonely had a 14 per cent greater risk of dying early. This means that, according to this study, loneliness has around twice the impact on early death as obesity.
Reading this research took me back to the summer of 1985 when, a few months after my dad died, I was in a car crash with my close friend Dickie. We were at university at the time and the crash happened during the summer holidays. Dickie took a dreadful bang to his head and was unable to return to university in October as a result. He missed a term of study and I ended up living alone in a student house that we had paid a rental deposit upon the previous spring.
There I was, 270 miles from friends and family in Sussex, stuck in grim accommodation, alone.
Loneliness gets into your brain and your bones. Quite often I would walk the mile or so into university, to combat the sense of solitude. I’d converse with Big Ray in the porter’s lodge, play pool with anyone who fancied a game or sit in the common room so that I was among company. Other times, I would stay in the house and think. I had much more time to think than was healthy.
Effect on learning
Looking back on that experience, I wonder how many of the pupils in our schools are profoundly affected by similar feelings of loneliness – and what kind of day-to-day effect this could be having on their learning and wellbeing.
Our young people are the most connected generation in years and yet, in some ways, also the most isolated. Wedded to their smartphones and tablets, they share a glossy veneer version of the best bits of their lives from the solitude of their bedrooms.
Loneliness can be corrosive. Those of us in education need to be aware of signs of isolation in our pupils. But we also have to be mindful of contributing to the problem by fuelling the current obsession with dedicating every second in school to academic study.
Allowing students to chat with their mates during registration time provides a crucial space for them to socialise, to make connections and to build friendships. For many it might be the only time they have spoken to someone since the end of school the day before. Remember, it’s good to talk – that is as true for our students as it is for us.
John Tomsett is head at Huntington School in York and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. He tweets @johntomsett