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How the Co-op Foundation is tackling youth loneliness

18th April 2019
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The subject of mental health in students is a widely documented one, but one particular aspect - loneliness - is something we’re not discussing as openly as we should.

82% of youth workers believe that loneliness is a widespread issue for young people, and 73% believe that they don’t actively seek help to try and alleviate it. According to a BBC Radio 4 survey, 40% of young people admit to feeling lonely “often”. A 2018 survey by the Guardian reported that 33% of university students feel lonely “often or all of the time”. The Independent, meanwhile, reports that one in six claims to have “no real friends” at university.

Clearly, this is a problem that needs urgent attention - and with calls for the government to properly invest in youth mental health seemingly falling on deaf ears, brands are stepping up to the challenge.

In 2016, the Co-op Foundation teamed up with the British Red Cross to look into the issue. Their research found that 92% of people think that community has a role to play in supporting people experiencing loneliness, and 75% of those who are “always” or “often” lonely don’t know where to turn for support.

They also found that those experiencing loneliness were more likely than others to withdraw from their communities - something that can cause further physical and mental health problems.

When it comes to youth loneliness specifically, the numbers continue to look bleak - the Co-op Foundation found that 16-to-24-year-olds were found to be lonelier than any other age group, with 65% believing that loneliness is a particular problem for people their age, and just 19% believing that loneliness is taken seriously as a social issue.

Scarily, 81% cite other people’s reactions as a reason not to speak out about their own loneliness.

> You can read the full Breaking the Silence Around Youth Loneliness report here.

As a result of their findings, the Co-op Foundation invested in a loneliness campaign - and in the intervening three years, Co-op members and staff have raised a whopping £6.7 million, which has been invested in projects in communities within the UK.

As part of their mission to help build strong communities, the Co-op Foundation is continuing to tackle these statistics with community-led projects across the UK, from Cornwall to Kent to Scotland, and back to Co-op’s home city of Manchester. Here, we’ve identified some of the things that they’re doing to help…

Working with the government on innovative, community-led solutions

Last year Co-op matched the government in putting forward £1 million to help communities and groups break down the barriers that cause loneliness in the UK. As part of Co-op’s Belong network, groups with inventive solutions to the problem were able to apply for £80,000 grants to start their projects.

Jim Cooke, Head of the Co-op Foundation, said at the time that the funds would “help bring young people together to come up with innovative solutions to tackling loneliness while also building their confidence and skills to strengthen their connections and sense of belonging.”

It worked - projects have included social activities for care-leavers in Bristol (with Barnado’s), working with Turtle Arts to help young people affected by HIV create music and podcasts (with the Children’s HIV Association), and creating ecotherapy activities with unemployed young people (via City of Bradford YMCA).

Read more about Belong here.

> You can find out about other projects supported by Belong here.

Funding research at universities

Manchester Metropolitan University - based in the city where the Co-op was founded on values of community and cooperation almost 200 years ago - is working with local youth mental health organisation 42nd Street to train young researchers to look into the effect that loneliness has on young people. Their findings will be published widely to raise further awareness of the issue.

Increasing friendships through mentorship

In Derby, young people who are struggling with traditional education are matched with local mentors as part of the Twenty Twenty programme.

In the North East, Co-op is running “Fast Friends” sessions, where young people can drop in and make new friends. The sessions are in partnership with Youth Focus: North East.

Utilising the arts

A project in South London is seeing Co-op work with local schools and award-winning playwright Mark Kenny to create a piece of work around youth loneliness. The project is working in partnership with Kennington venue Oval Space.

A separate project is using theatre to engage young women who are at risk of offending, as well as those who already have experience of the criminal justice system.

In Stoke-on-Trent, teenagers are working with children entering secondary school to help run a family music festival, and in London, the Youth Activist Programme is using photography to raise awareness of mental health issues amongst at-risk youth.

Back in Manchester, iconic venue the Royal Exchange Theatre is working with the Co-op Foundation and local schools to explore issues of loneliness through the creative arts.  

Working with those in, and leaving, the care system

Young people who are in or have recently left care are a group particularly at risk, and can become socially isolated more easily than their peers. Co-op is working with care-leavers across the country on Become, a project designed to build their skills for independence. In Cornwall, a separate project - entitled Carefree Cornwall - is working with those who have already left the system to train them to act as peer mentors for those who are just about to.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, the Co-operative College is working with care-leavers to set up their own co-ops to tackle youth loneliness.

Increasing opportunity for those with disabilities

Like those in care, young people with disabilities are also liable to become isolated and as a result suffer from mental health problems. Co-op’s Changing Our Lives project utilises local communities to facilitate friendships, whilst a partnership with Wizz Kids is designed to increase the aspirations of young wheelchair-users through the facilitation of a national leadership project.

In Thanet, Kent, books are being used to show those with learning disabilities how they can positively impact the world around them.

Volunteering to increase self-worth

Volunteering and fundraising are the key components of Youth Cymru’s project, which has seen the creation of three “Youth Hubs” in various sites across the country.

Across the rest of the UK, volunteering is also a strong focus. Co-op’s #iwill campaign is aiming to get 60% of young people involved in community action by 2020, with fundraising and campaigning being key activities. Co-op’s £1 million grants - which have been matched by the National Lottery government - “fund projects that inspire young people in disadvantaged communities to tackle loneliness, through social action that’s shaped by co-operative values.”

In Luton, disadvantaged young people are learning to cook and sharing food with their local communities as part of the Youthscape group.

> See more local initiatives and find out what else Co-op is doing to alleviate loneliness in communities across the country here.


As we can see, the Co-op Foundation is doing valuable work across the country to help young people who are at risk of, or already affected by, loneliness. Breaking down barriers for those who are at risk and helping them make real connections within their communities is just one of the ways that Co-op is helping change the narrative.

class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom: .0001pt; line-height: normal;">It’s partly because of Co-op members, though, that all this work has been possible. As a community business, its local people that make Co-op - and that’s why a percentage of the money that’s spent by Co-op members goes back into local projects like those mentioned above. Find out how Co-op members are raising money through shopping at Co-op here and sign up to become a member here.

Students can get 10% off at Co-op with a TOTUM or NUS Extra card.

Read more about loneliness on the Co-op Foundation blog here.

Follow the conversation via the hashtag #TheCoopWay

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