Is loneliness at university a taboo subject?

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Loneliness is an emotion that we’ve all almost definitely experienced at some point while at university. It’s something that rarely gets acknowledged: considered as taboo, loneliness gets grouped as an ‘off-limits’ topic alongside similar emotions like anxiety and depression.

However, as we find ourselves amidst the current global pandemic, more attention should be focused on normalising loneliness and signposting the symptoms, particularly in a climate that denies us a quick trip home.

Many people, myself included, come to university with a set of (very naïve) expectations. We’ll find our friends for life within the first week, get on perfectly with all our housemates, and always be busy. Of course, this is rarely the case.

Unhappiness at university needs to be destigmatised

Whilst it’s not something I recognised at the time, loneliness is an emotion I faced frequently in my first year. Like many, I’d moved over 300 miles north, knew quite literally nobody in Durham, and didn’t really have much in common with my flatmates. I spent most of my free time in my room, and could go days without seeing a flatmate. What made things worse was seeing my friends from home posting all over social media just how much fun they were having at their own universities.

What’s ironic about this is that I undoubtedly wasn’t the only one feeling unhappy – the lack of communication in my flat probably meant my flatmates were feeling isolated too, and we know to never trust Instagram or Snapchat to give an accurate portrayal of someone’s life. But nobody offered suggestions of how to approach the subject, and there’s never an alternative image of university being anything other than the best years of your life.

This shouldn’t be the case, though. A 2018 survey showed that 46% of UK students experienced loneliness when at university, a figure likely to have increased now that many of us have spent two weeks confined to our rooms. Likewise, during March and April of this year, UK Nightlines saw a surge in calls. One in six calls dealt with loneliness – triple the service’s usual rates.

Unhappiness at university needs to be destigmatised. Yes, colleges offer welfare support, and calling your GP may lead to talking therapies – but for either of these resources to be utilised, steps need to be taken to help people recognise how loneliness might manifest. It goes beyond simply being alone: you can feel alone in a group of people – a misunderstanding that means loneliness continues to go
unnoticed.

Loneliness can take the form of prolonged, often self-perceived, isolation, but it can accumulate, with a person increasingly withdrawing on their own accord over time, often without realising that this is even what they are doing.

A self-care routine away from university life is essential

This makes management difficult: when it becomes evident, it seems too great to overcome. The mental health charity Mind offers suggestions for coping with loneliness. They propose the best starting point is easing yourself into what’s on offer around you. Though difficult given current restrictions, it can include taking yourself out to a café or a walk through town – or even spending an afternoon outside of your room, away from the pressures of university work.

Mind also suggests looking after yourself – a simple and somewhat obvious step we all often neglect. Sleep, and exercise massively play into how we feel, and implicating a self-care routine away from university life is essential. The charity explains the benefits of exercise and getting outside, and once you take steps to prioritise yourself, there’s a chance you’ll feel up to implicating more changes to manage feelings of isolation.

These steps, the charity understands, won’t fix feelings of loneliness, but they will almost certainly help to manage them. The most important step, though, is to identify how you’re feeling – something which is difficult but essential, especially when facing the possibility of imposed isolation. Starting a conversation about loneliness at this moment is crucial. This will help to recognise what it can entail, and hopefully destigmatise it within the university environment.

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