Join Us is a non-profit organization in the Netherlands that has measurably reduced loneliness among younger people aged 12 to 25. Since 2016, this program has helped thousands of young people from more than 63 municipalities across the country.
Kyra Haerkens, Quality Coach at Join Us explains more.
“A while before I turned eighteen, I created a Whatsapp-group and invited a few classmates to my party. To my horror, everyone had left the group. I celebrated my birthday without friends. It’s one of the many lonely moments of my childhood” – Lisa (20)
Youngsters with feelings of loneliness like Lisa can sign up for the Join Us program. In this program, youngsters meet with peers every two weeks in their own municipality. During the meetings, youngsters are supported by two social workers who work for a local social work organization. These social workers are trained by Join Us to successfully use the Join Us method which is illustrated in the image below. This method aims to ensure that youngsters (1) have positive experiences with peers, (2) gain knowledge about their own behaviours surrounding loneliness (3) obtain a realistic image of themselves and their environment, and (4) develop sufficient social skills. In the end, Join Us wants to help youngsters build and maintain their social network.
At the bottom of the house, you see the foundation of the method that consists of ‘fun and safety’, ‘peer-to-peer contact’ and ‘personal leadership’. These conditions are the basic conditions of the Join Us method and are seen as necessary for positive change. During the bi-weekly meetings, the social workers try to understand the youngsters’ behaviour to support them in their personal growth.
“Sam always visited the Join Us meetings, but when other youngsters asked him to join a game, he refused. Instead of joining the others, Sam grabbed his phone and moved to the corner of the room. I noticed him doing this a few times, so I decided to discuss it with him. He told me that he was afraid, but he could not explain what exactly he was afraid of. After a few weeks, he found out that he was not afraid of doing something with the group, but of making mistakes during a game. He once did when he was with his classmates, and they kept on making fun of him” – Daniel (social worker)
Social workers teach youngsters that behaviour can result from (a) missing social skill(s) like not daring to make eye-contact, not knowing how to ask more personal questions or not knowing how to deepen social contact. Certain behaviour can also result from a negative bias about oneself, like the thought ‘nobody likes me’ or like Sam: ‘others will make fun of me if I make a mistake’. Together with the social worker, the youngsters form a social challenge which is focused on positive change. According to Daniel, Sam picked his first challenges: ‘Joining a game’ and ‘Intentionally making a mistake during a game to see what happens”. With these social challenges, they hope to challenge Sam’s negative thoughts.
The youngsters fill in a questionnaire before they start with the Join Us program and again after every six meetings. These questionnaires measure the extent to which there are feelings of loneliness, the degree of self-confidence and the degree of social skills according to the youngster. It helps both the youngster and the social worker understand the underlying mechanism of loneliness. The graph below shows the average answers of all completed questionnaires across three categories. The graph shows a marked increase in social skills and feelings of self-confidence, alongside a clear decrease in feelings of loneliness amongst participants
Youngsters leave the program when they’ve met their challenges and are sufficiently socially capable to, now and in the future, have and maintain an appropriate network that meets their needs. Like many other youngsters, Lisa has managed to break through her loneliness:
“I celebrated the birthdays that followed with my friends from Join Us. They all came to my party! I feel less lonely, more happy and I am satisfied with who I am today”