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There is no escaping the continuing apocalyptic diagnoses about the state of young people’s mental health in this country. The news cycle regularly informs us about new record levels of one symptom of poor mental health or another: whether it be loneliness, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts. To help alleviate it, the UK Government should reintroduce a programme of National Service.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, young people under 30 were constantly more lonely, more anxious, more stressed and were 10% more likely to report poor mental health as compared to the over-60s. Consequently, in 2019, just under a quarter of young people have self-harmed. Indeed, the leading cause of death for those under the age of 35 is suicide. This mental health epidemic points to a generation who are in crisis, struggling to find their identity and purpose in life, and, most importantly, are lonely.

It is important to alleviate the symptoms of loneliness at the start of adulthood so that those widespread feelings do not snowball into something worse, such as anxiety or depression. It is clear that loneliness increases the risk associated with those poor mental health symptoms. If young people do not have the community and the mechanisms to ensure positive mental health, then the crisis will only worsen.

To help provide young people with that lacking sense of community and duty, the Government ought to reintroduce a programme of National Service.

A 2022 academic study detailed that there are three key ways to end loneliness: expense, accessibility and structure. Many young people find it hard to participate in socialising if money and distance are a barrier and if an activity is unstructured, as it can often appear to lack purpose. A National Service Scheme which ran every summer for those between the ages of 18-22 would provide solutions to each of those three key issues, creating a generation that stands ready to face the challenges and demands of the twenty-first century.

While in one sense we may nowadays be more connected more than ever, it is often through the internet, which gives a false sense of intimacy and friendship. Young people are now spending over double the amount of time on the internet compared to the outside. Working and adventuring with others should instead be with real bonds, with real people, in the real world. Within a National Service programme, not only would fraternity and community inevitably be fostered, but those bonds would help to create a more positive and interconnected generation helping to alleviate anxiety and social exclusion.  Friendships in the real world are far more valuable than those online.

Indeed, a key job of government is to provide opportunities for young people, whether it be in schools or otherwise. Not only would a National Service programme provide career and skills opportunities, if appropriately structured, but personal development too. Given that 65% of 15-year-olds worry about their future career, National Service could assist in refining employment and financial skills which all too often do not get taught in schools.

Thus, through a new National Service, young people would experience new opportunities, but could also improve both their mental and physical health. Those who are active and participate in regular exercise are three times more happy than those who are not regularly active. The good habits of exercise benefit far more than just the body, and those could be facilitated by the programme.

There have been attempts to re-invent the spirit of National Service before, such as through the National Citizen Service scheme set up by the 2010-2016 Cameron Government. Yet it has failed to garner uptake, at only 13% of those eligible, despite a target of 45%.  A better scheme could work on an opt-out basis, as suggested in a report by the think-tank Onward, so the opportunity is the default for young people. With such a large group participating, not only could those who have felt loneliness have the opportunity to meet others, but a great experiment of social mixing would take place, helping break down the class and social barriers present in the UK society.

It would be a formative experience at the start of adulthood, providing friends and new skills to tackle anxiety and loneliness. National Service would break down barriers, bring young people together, give them new friends and new skills and, hopefully, help put the worries and anxiety that foster our mental health epidemic to rest.


William Morris is undergoing work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not those of Bright Blue. [Image: Maël Balland]