For an event touted as one of the most difficult transitions young people face, discussion about the move to university often focuses on the practical. Sorting out a place to stay, making lists of equipment you’ll need, preparing for the rise in academic challenge – these issues are considered as soon as the applications are sent off. The subsequent weeks are full of energy and last-minute reminders and moving day dissolves into a blur of suitcases and cramped journeys over many miles. Once everything settles down and you’re in your new place, there’s a sudden realisation of just how much more you’ll have to learn to do now you’re (mostly) alone. Uni might not entail a whole new life, but it certainly demands a lot of energy to adapt to the dramatic change, something not everybody may be ready to deliver on. There is a significant chance some people will be left behind, alone.
It’s no secret that there is a massive problem concerning the mental health of young people, particularly in higher education. Of course, the extreme cases attract the most attention, however there are so many more students struggling with loneliness, feeling cut off from the rest of their community, afraid that any friendships they may appear to have are simply superficial and short-lived. They disappear into their work, vanish into their rooms, and generally fade from view. What can we do, or say, to help stop the surge in statistics?
What’s frustrating about the issue of loneliness, like so many emotional issues, is that everybody involved can feel powerless – the person may feel they can’t reach out to anybody, the people around them may feel they can’t get through, even if they can see the struggle playing out. Loneliness can seem to be a self-sustaining problem, creating a barrier to social contact. It becomes difficult to realise that this barrier is not real, and that it is possible to make a connection and offset the isolation; it will take a lot of energy and courage, yet it most definitely is not a lost cause.
Universities are aware of the problem happening in their institutions, and many now contain guides on where to turn if you feel like loneliness is taking its toll, such as this example from the University of St Andrews. KCL does not, unfortunately, have such an explicit, easily-located leaflet on the issue, however King’s Wellbeing has a useful list of resources available – whether this is enough support is an issue demanding a longer piece. Even before we get to professional, institutional services such as these, loneliness can be addressed on a local level, especially in such a place as a university. Every class, common room, and hall of residence is a perfect place to begin to tackle isolation, and seminars could be hardly designed better to spark vital conversation. The greatest obstacle in addressing loneliness is a lack of awareness and acknowledgement; articles in the media are excellent, but discussions in everyday life are better.
Of course, we’re not counsellors, and you shouldn’t expect the feelings of isolation to disappear overnight after striking up one conversation. Universities are becoming more receptive to issues of mental health and are directing more resources towards these sorts of problems – the help is there. Those of us unqualified to provide expert support still have an important job, however, in recognising people struggling with loneliness, both as cases in need of support and as people – reminding them that they aren’t as walled-off as they feel will help them greatly, and such an attitude will likely make university a far less alienating place to be for all of us.