Over the past few months I’ve been on a journey to narrow down my focus of speaking about loneliness. It's a big topic and while there are those who speak about the subject at large, I prefer to speak to college students.
College was when I first experienced full-blown bipolar disorder as well as the first time I felt severe loneliness. Part of the reason was because I went to a college where I didn’t fit in, but also my mental health issues kept me from feeling connected with others.
Reasons for loneliness among college-aged students can vary. Some are from overseas and going to school in another country may not be easy. For others, their mental health issue may keep them from finding connections. Or it's possible the school they’re at is among people they don’t feel comfortable: they’re a city person and they’re in a school in a small town, or vice versa.
Whatever the reason for the loneliness, it exists. And it’s prevalent among college students. So what are we to do about it?
The first thing we can do is have people speak up. And I’m not only referring to professional speakers on college campuses. I’m also including students. It’s may be easy for some students to hear a tale from someone like myself who is out of the realm of college age and dismiss what I say.
But, having a fellow student come out and proclaim their difficulties can have a much more powerful impact. Whenever we know the person dealing with a problematic experience, it can make us accepting to what they’re going through.
The second thing is to have more education about the agency that we, as individuals, have to combat and defeat loneliness. I’ve often believed that early in a student’s college career (or even before it), there should be education on mental health issues at school. Students should be aware that college can be a time of great transition with their mental wellness. And they may feel emotions and undergo new experiences in their mental health.
That said, loneliness should also be a part of that conversation. This is especially important for students who spend time overseas or who, for one reason or another, are going to be away from their peers. Yet, learning about how to find belonging should be something that colleges teach students.
College can be a tremendous time of change. Even if you’re not in school, the transition from high school to the full-time working world is a jolt. Thus, more awareness, by both peers and educators, is key to letting those in their late teens and early twenties know they’re not alone. And in doing so, we also should pass along means by which those in college can know that there are ways they can find belonging.
,There is a lot of stigma associated with the word “loneliness” or saying “I’m lonely.” But loneliness strikes everyone at some point in our lives. It's challenging to take one's self out of a comfort zone and be in situation where we may know few, if any, people. For college students, being a young adult is already a time of questioning one’s self, meaning we may not feel as though we belong. Yet that is what we’re all seeking, especially when we’re unsure of ourselves.
Setting up a system whereby students become informed of their need for belonging and how to find that presents a positive notion. It says: here’s this thing you want and now let’s talk about how you can get it. This is in opposition to the way that loneliness often comes across. It's often seen as a dreaded state to avoid and connected to depression and inadequacy.
Yet everyone desires to connect and belong. Framing an attack on loneliness in this manner seems a more likely way to get students to interact with programs at universities. “How to find connection and a sense of belonging” versus “How to stop feeling lonely.” While the phrasing could be slightly different with each of those, the sentiment is the same. Having more people say “I’m lonely” along with rephrasing it as being about connection and belonging would find more success in aiding students who may be dealing with both loneliness and wanting to belong.
I’ve found that the worst part about loneliness is being aware of it when it’s happening to you. Thinking about it can make it worse. That’s why I’ve found the best thing I can do is to keep busy. I tend to work on activities or take on extra jobs (I like feeling productive). But for those in college, my suggestion is to dip a toe in the waters of clubs and organizations.
Think of things you’re passionate about: writing, acting, exercising, film, etc. There are often clubs on campus for those sorts of things. And if there isn’t you can usually start one, either formal or informal. Your university’s website will often list official clubs and student organizations. Getting involved with these groups will not only keep your mind occupied but will also enable you to meet new people.
This way of making connections goes back to John Cacioppo’s EASE method, so the premise is the same. Think about what activities you like and create a list. Then decide what you have time for and what you really want to do. Any time you can spend bonding over similar shared interests is a way to grow closer to others.
Since I never felt I fit in on my tiny, rural college campus, I spent time at the nearby state school. I went to concerts there and got to know people in that music scene. In the end, that was the best way for me to make close connections in the midst of a college setting that otherwise left me feeling lonely all too often.
One of the great things about college is the wide array of activities available. These might include movies, lectures, theater performances, and volunteer events. Many are either cheap or free. If possible, make a point to attend at least one of these every few weeks. Mark it on your calendar and stick to it, even if you don’t always feel like going.
Such events are perfect opportunities to get to know people with whom you want to hang out. Go to an event and then get some food or coffee afterward. That bond of having the same experience will give you something to talk about.
I did this at college on occasion, but I often found myself uninterested because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the one punk kid at an otherwise pretty conservative school. Yet, at some point my freshman year a guy in my dorm invited me to play pool with him. It ended up being a good way for us to connect and build a friendship. I wouldn’t have expected to like pool but I did. And it helped me make a new friend.
Many of the activities offered at college take place on weekends, so a piece of related advice: don’t go home when your classes are over for the week. Some students will do that their freshman year, usually because they have a partner back home. Many times those students have difficulty making new friends.
I went home a few times my freshman year to see people I knew from high school or go to a show, and that’s understandable. But if you’re going home every weekend (or most of them), it makes it difficult to connect. Building relationships (and escaping loneliness) takes repeated shared experiences with others. That can only happen if you’re on campus.
Loneliness at college is all too often made worse by mental illness. When I was in college my bipolar disorder emerged. I had very low self-esteem and didn’t believe there were many (if any) people who wanted to be my friend. Combating serious depression and chronic low self-worth can take a toll on one’s mental health. It makes it all that much more difficult to get out of one’s lonely shell. So, if you’re having chronic depression or other mental health issues, address those. Seeing a therapist at your school's counseling center can be a good place to start.
Handling feelings of loneliness at college often goes back to what John Cacioppo said about “expecting the best” when trying to break out of loneliness. Ask someone from your dorm, that person you chatted with at a party, or someone from one of your classes if they want to hang sometime. It doesn’t have to be a weird date—ask them if they want to study together, go to a concert with you, or get something to eat. And then try your damnedest to be optimistic. I know it can be difficult because it’s all too easy to be cynical. Yet people are making connections all the time and there’s no reason you don’t have to be one of them.
And do yourself a favor: take some time off from social media. Or at least don't check it quite so often. Based on what your friends are posting on Instagram and Snapchat you may think they’re all having a fun time without you. Perhaps they are, but it’s also likely they feel lonely at times. But few people are posting pictures of that.
I’ve learned that if you want accountability for things you want to change in your life, it’s important to let other people know about it. For example, I want to start doing more public speaking about mental health, so I’ve told friends and family that’s a goal of mine. It works the same way when you want to overcome any issue: share it with others and people will follow up with you on it. They can keep you accountable. As I mentioned in the last post, you’re not alone in this. So, if you feel comfortable doing so, share with friends or family how you’re feeling. If nothing else, write about it in a journal. You’re feeling lonely. That’s okay.
Now for a basic piece of practical advice on how to open one’s self to a possible avenue of making friends in college: leave the door open. I lived in a dorm for three of my four years at college. I felt out of place for most of my college experience, but I learned early on that leaving the door to my room open encouraged others to be social. Of course if you need some privacy to study or make a phone call it’s understandable to close the door. Yet it surprised me how many people would stop by and say hey or ask if I wanted to go to lunch or dinner. I’m well aware this may not lead to meeting your best friend, but every chance you have to spend time with new people is at least another possibility.
There is still a lot of stigma attached to saying you’re lonely. This is especially prevalent amongst teens and those in their early twenties. While it’s becoming acceptable to share one’s struggles with mental illness, few want to admit that they don’t have the connections they desire. But statistics show college students aren’t alone in their loneliness. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times: “In a  survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent said that they had ‘felt very lonely’ in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”
The important thing to remember is you’re not alone. It can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you to not have as many friends as your peers seem to have (although looks can be deceiving). It’s hard to be patient when you’re going through so many changes anyway: the attempt to find friends seems like one more thing to deal with. Time can seem to drag while you wait to make those close friends everyone told you that you’d make in college.
Take solace in the fact that there are others like you out there; your fellow students who also want to make friends. You never know which person it is in your group for a class project who may become your new friend. Or someone who lives on the same floor with you in the dorm.
Being accepted to a college is both exciting and terrifying. It’s a relief to have some direction in one’s life but for many people it’s scary because you may not know anyone at your new school. I was anxious about going to a big school where I wouldn't have friends. So I only applied to the college my sister attended because I knew I’d at least know her and her friends, even though they were all seniors when I was a freshman.
In a new situation, loneliness can be prevalent. Many students are taught that college is “the best four years of your life,” which, I can assure you, was not my case (nor the case of many others). Some students are under the misconception that making friends in college is quick and easy. Yet that can also be far from the truth. To meet people with whom I felt as though I could identify, it took me almost to the end of my freshman year—and it’s not as though I went to a huge state school. My university had 1900 students.
There are a lot of issues that come into play with loneliness at colleges, though. One is social media, but there are also issues of anxiety amongst teens. It can be scary to put one’s self out there and try and make new friends. Homesickness also plays a role in making life more difficult for those away at a new learning institution. In following entries, I’ll be looking at issues of loneliness at college and what students (and parents) can do that might ease it.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.