How To Tackle Loneliness At University
Nearly half of university students in the UK describe themselves as being lonely during term time, compared to just 32% globally. Alongside other mental health problems including depression and anxiety, both of which have been identified as a cause of dropout, loneliness is a growing issue.
Nor are students the only demographic to suffer such problems. The Jo Cox Commission On Loneliness has identified a shift from personal misfortune to social epidemic. Despite its increase, the scale of the effects of loneliness are not well known and many students are ill-equipped to cope when they encounter it.
Here we cover the basics of student loneliness – and how to combat it.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness has very little to do with being alone. You may be alone often yet feel comfortable and happy in this situation. Conversely, at university, you are likely to be surrounded by many people. Most students live with flatmates in halls or private accommodation and regularly attend lectures and seminars.
However, loneliness occurs when you feel like you are not understood or cared for by these people. You feel like you can’t open up to them and as if you’re disconnected from society. While this in itself is not a mental health problem, it can lead to feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety.
Effects of loneliness
Social interaction should be considered as vital as food or water. We are social animals and, without good quality relationships, your physical and mental health will be affected.
Recent research into the consequences of chronic loneliness has been quite alarming. Lack of social interaction can cause a buildup of stress which increases blood pressure and erodes the arteries, disrupting the proper functioning of the heart. Those who live alone are at a higher risk of suicide and doctors have even found that they give more successful treatment to those with a strong social support network.
As loneliness escalates into anxiety, you will likely have trouble sleeping. This will make the ability to concentrate and memorise information more difficult and could cause a slip in grades. By not overcoming loneliness, students risk not completing their degree.
What can be done?
We all get lonely sometimes, but if you’re worried it’s becoming a problem, then it is important to make some changes.
Begin by talking. Try and make an effort to stay in touch with your friends and talk openly about how you feel. Chances are they will be able to relate or at least understand your situation. Feeling understood is a key component to overcoming loneliness, so do your best to speak openly. You can also speak to staff or student mental health support services.
Always look for new opportunities to interact with like-minded people. Societies and clubs are always welcoming to new members. Volunteering in particular has been shown to give new perspectives and a feeling of usefulness in society, which fights against social isolation. It will also help prevent dementia in later life.
It’s important to remember that you are not alone and to try and maintain perspective. Up to 50% of students are facing intense loneliness and a feeling of disconnection with others around them. Take a moment to feel grateful for any friends or family members who are there for you and strengthen these commitments.
The reasons why millennials are lonelier than previous generations are unclear, but if the rate of loneliness can increase then it can decrease as well. Don’t rely on the internet too much to fulfil your social needs. This could actually increase social isolation. Even having a phone nearby when with a friend can inhibit connecting deeply. Try to switch off from technology and become present with your peers.
People who feel lonely are usually no less isolated than those who don’t, but they struggle to pick up on positive social stimuli and withdraw prematurely. Try to remedy this by thinking more positively about social interactions. If you have an awkward encounter, you may feel the urge to withdraw and interact less with others. Do your best to resist this urge and understand that feeling awkward is just a normal part of being a student.
There is no quick fix for feeling lonely, but we can help prevent the devastating effects of chronic loneliness by spotting it early. Take time to read the research and understand just how important connection and community is to your health and ultimately to your education.
Loneliness is a societal issue that universities should be taking more seriously, but it starts with individual students. Take little steps to interact more often and more deeply to get the most out of your uni experience.