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.
In May the health insurance company Cigna produced the results of a study on loneliness. The most surprising piece of information was the group that suffers the most: young adults.
At first thought it doesn’t seem logical that those in their teens and early twenties would have such high rates of loneliness. Yet, the current train of thought is that loneliness amongst youth is due to a couple of reasons. First, youth haven’t developed an understanding of picking up on social stimuli. In other words, the more one pulls into loneliness, the lower their self-esteem can go. Others (friends, family, acquaintances) can try to draw the lonely individual in to relationships. But this may lead to the individual being more resistant to that attempt. Youth have a difficult time of understanding the sincerity of positive connections. This causes them to draw further into their loneliness.
I speak of this from personal experience, too. I went to a small liberal arts university that was fairly conservative. To put it in musical terms, my school was very pop radio and I was more punk rock. I did have some connections and friendships, but when I received an invitation to a party, I often declined. Granted, much of this was due to my depression (which I’ve covered before). Yet the two fed off one another. I couldn’t comprehend the idea that others had a genuine interest in being my friend and so I withdrew further. It took years of therapy and coming to accept I was someone worth loving for me to believe others when they asked me to do things with them.
The other primary issue with youth and loneliness is the internet, especially social networking. Some teenagers find the web to be a good place to escape from society. (This isn’t relegated to teens, of course.) The possibility to avoid awkward social interactions and use the internet, instead, is appealing. Witnessing others living curated lives can be deceiving, though. When one views others engaging in fun occasions, it can leave the lonely teen feeling as though she or he is even further engulfed in loneliness. As one article stated: “Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying.”
Utilizing the web isn’t always a bad thing. As Rebecca Nowland, Elizabeth Necka, and John Cacioppo point out: “When the Internet is used as a way station on the route to enhancing existing relationships and forging new social connections, it is a useful tool for reducing loneliness…. This suggests that lonely people may need support with their social Internet use so that they employ it in a way that enhances existing friendships and/or to forge new ones.” (“Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World?” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2018, Vol. 13(1) 70– 87).
Thus, like most things, it comes down to how we use it. The fast growth of the internet and our readying acceptance of everything associated with it has caused us to leap first, without looking. My hope is that, through the work of schools, parents, non-profits, and the mental health community, we can teach everyone—and especially teens—good boundaries in their use of the internet so to avoid the frustrations of loneliness.
Given the highlighting of loneliness over the past many months, I’m not surprised that someone would come up with a religious response to the issue. Recently a FOX News blog post ran on their website titled “God may have put you in a lonely place for an incredible reason”. The article begins with background information on the current state of loneliness in our culture. Then the author, Pastor Rick McDaniel, dives into the meat of his essay.
His argument is that it’s during our lonely times we can turn to god. McDaniel describes this as a great opportunity to be closer to this supreme being. Throughout the article McDaniel confuses the idea of being alone and being lonely. He speaks of loneliness as being a situation without having anyone around. Instead, as I’ve highlighted before, being lonely is about not having the connections you want.
McDaniel writes that loneliness can develop our character. The only example he gives is that our patience can increase while we wait in our loneliness. Speaking from experience, I can assure you there are many less painful ways of learning patience. I wouldn’t suggest someone become lonely as a means to learn that ability.
McDaniel also states that loneliness can inspire us to become creative. Yet here he once again confuses being alone and loneliness. He seems to think it is when we are alone that we find we can tap into our creative juices and birth great achievements. Solitude does allow us to work well. I’m writing this while I sit alone in my apartment, but that won’t take me out of feeling lonely. The act of writing a piece about loneliness won’t bring me the connections I desire.
Finally, McDaniel expresses the idea that loneliness can create in us a desire to serve others. It’s not clear to me why loneliness is necessary to serve others. Here, once again, he confuses loneliness with being alone. I can understand how in solitude one might reflect and realize the needs of others. Yet, one doesn’t have to be feeling disconnected from those around them to have the desire to serve others. I would hope that might come from empathy toward others and love for our fellow human beings.
In McDaniel’s article, all his responses point back to going to god for support and finding solace there when one is lonely. This, unfortunately, leaves many individuals who do not believe in god without a solution to their loneliness. I can appreciate someone offering their two cents on the issues of loneliness. *ahem* Yet people in positions of authority peddling out useless advice that offers an incorrect understanding of the concept about which they’re writing are no help to anyone. If anything, they’re a hindrance to those who might be trying to find a way clear of their loneliness.
Some organizations and people doing great work with loneliness and mental health
Besides writing my own blog, I follow the work of others who deal with the topic of mental health, including depression and loneliness. Here are a few I want to highlight.
Jordan Brown – Jordan is a recent graduate in social work who is one of the top mental health writers on Medium. He writes encouraging, thoughtful posts that come from a very personal place. Jordan truly has a heart for helping others with their mental health and it shows in his posts.
Mike Veny – Mike’s message is a powerful one about how he’s overcome suicide attempts and being expelled from schools as a youth. He’s now a top mental health speaker and someone whose success as a speaker I admire. He works to overcome the stigma that all too often comes with depression.
UnLonely Project - The UnLonely Project has been featured on the Today Show and in Psychology Today for their work on combating loneliness in our society. They also have a streaming film festival of short films that deal with the topic at their website. Their work seeks to give tools to those dealing with loneliness and tie it in with the arts as a means to combat the issue.
NAMI Blog – This blog for the National Alliance on Mental Illness covers a range of topics on mental health. These include insurance, depression amongst teens, and self-care. The blog is updated multiple times a week with posts that are easy to understand and which are quite helpful.
The Lonely Hour – This podcast is an examination of loneliness and solitude by host Julia Bainbridge. It’s not a bummer, though. Through interviews she explores various aspects of loneliness: whether it’s brought about by the loss of faith or a life of addiction. It’s an honest and thought-provoking exploration of loneliness.
Over the years, I've found that loneliness affects people in one incredibly dramatic way that often goes unaddressed. I've seen in the lives of both friends and myself something that shows the power of loneliness in causing fear. And that is the prevalence of individuals entering relationships that are detrimental to them because they're scared of being alone.
The fear of loneliness is striking. It can be terrifying to imagine ourselves in an isolated state. Few like the idea of being away from any loved ones, and especially that notion of experiencing hurt with no one around to help.
This concern can cause both men and women to enter into relationships with a less than ideal partner. No one person will match us in every way. Yet, there's a distinct difference between someone who isn't quite a perfect match and someone who is cruel.
Unfortunately, I've seen some friends (and myself) enter into abusive or misaligned relationships. Often times, one party (or both) are fearful of solitude. It might be they're afraid they will never find the right partner. Thus, they settle for individuals who are emotionally unavailable or whom they find unattractive. One person may think they can "change" the other person.
Besides these concerns, most people do want a romantic connection with someone else. And our society makes sure to remind people that a relationship is a be-all and end-all. If you're not in a relationship you're often viewed as defective or having personality issues. It can also be difficult to feel like the "third wheel" or having to do things alone, such as eating at a restaurant (although I have mad respect for those folks).
So how does one deal with loneliness when that is the option compared to being in a bad relationship? Check out my tips on getting out of loneliness. Also, I've found it helpful to remind myself that there are a lot of other people out there. One's options for finding a partner are many. And most of all, life is too short to be in relationships where you're not content. Everyone deserves to find happiness and healthiness in their lives. This includes in their relationships.
What are you working on?
Once someone gets to a point of sharing about their mental health, others can assume, “Well, they’ve got it all together. They’re on top of things.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. In my case, I am stabilized enough to share my experiences with others, but I'm not to a place where I no longer suffer from mental illness.
I am diagnosed with bipolar II and the symptoms associated with that are fairly well under control. I’ve also made a great deal of progress on my anxiety and self-confidence. They’re miles above where they once stood and allow me to function well, without allowing doubts about my self-worth.
But here are the things with which I still struggle:
I get depressed. This is usually related to feeling stuck and bored with what is going on around me. I’m often impatient about the changes I want in my life. When they don’t happen it leaves me disappointed. A lot of my depression is about that disconnect between where I am and what I want my life to be like. This primarily means I want to be in a situation where I can speak and write about mental health. I’m working on changing that.
2. Existential depression
This article pretty well describes that situation. But to summarize, I have, for much of my life, felt like I don’t know what it is I’m here for. This can often lead to feelings of worthlessness and pointlessness with my existence. This is slowly changing as I find that speaking out about mental health has helped me find purpose. But I still have my doubts.
3. Suicidal ideation
I’ve written about suicidal ideation for an article at Medium. This can be a real tough one to handle. When I am stuck I revert back to feeling as though suicide is a proper way out. But I’ve seen time and again it’s not.
So, what about you? If you’ve made improvements in your life, what are you still working on?
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.