I went to university a long time ago. I still remember the sense of anticipation and adventure. Living away from home, meeting new people, and, oh yes..studying.
When you start university, there is a mad scramble for friends. It’s not overt, but it pays to get out there in the first week or so meeting people and being sociable. It’s not something that comes naturally to everybody (certainly didn’t to me), but you feel instinctively that if you don’t find your group or at least someone to buddy-up with, it’s going to be a long and boring term.
I was fortunate, I did find friends, and some 25 years later, they’re still my friends. But even so, there were times at university when I felt loneliness creeping in, and when you’re away from your family and pre-uni friends, that feeling can be difficult to shake.
I remember some students being so homesick that they barely left their rooms. Others went home every weekend. The mental shift from having the life that you’re used to to moving into an environment where you’re surrounded by a varied group of perfect strangers can be quite a dramatic and even traumatising change. If you’re a student from abroad, there may also be the cultural shift to contend with. There are few instances in adult life where we have to go through such a stark change for such a prolonged period. Being a remote worker who has been sent to a different country for a year or two to work may be similar.
Sadly, some students find the adjustment very difficult, and if they haven’t made any close friends can feel very lonely and isolated. Sometimes this leads to tragic outcomes.
The start of university is not the only time when loneliness can kick in. It can also be during holidays when some students stay on campus whilst the majority have gone home. I did that a few times and it’s a strange feeling to be in an empty hall of residence – eerie.
Back in March 2019, the British government put together a task force to tackle the mental health challenges that some students face when starting university. It was set up to help students deal with the transition to independence as well as dealing with loneliness and isolation. Almost exactly one year on, COVID-19 arrived.
University life is, for some, challenging enough. Put COVID in the mix and there is a real danger that these challenges can be compounded. At the time of writing, parties are not allowed and groups larger than 6 people are forbidden. Further to that, some students are finding that they have to self-isolate. Self-isolating at home is one thing – self-isolating in a student room is quite another.
So if you’re a student away from home, how do you cope with loneliness?
The first thing to do is recognise that it’s absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. We humans are a social animal, even the introverted ones. If we don’t have meaningful connections in our lives, we feel lonely. That’s as natural as hunger without food and exhaustion without rest. None of those things are a cause for embarrassment.
Once we recognise that loneliness is a normal and natural response to a common situation, we should speak to someone about it. That could be your friends or family at home, another student who you feel would empathise, or a university member of staff. Most, if not all universities have bodies in place to support student wellbeing. If you’re struggling, reach out to them. They are there to help.
Finally, recognise that you are not the only one going through what you are experiencing. If you’re struggling to muster the courage to leave your room, are feeling lonely or even going through self-isolation, know that you are not alone. There are others going through exactly the same thing as you, so try to connect with them so that you can offer support for each other and make new friends along the way. Frindow has a ‘Student’ group, but there are many other sites where you can connect with other students who will understand exactly what you are going through.