The problem of university loneliness

17 Oct 2018

The last time I hung out with my sister, green leaves were beginning to blossom on the tips of the tree in our garden heralding the first sign that spring was near. Now they lay at the trunk, submerged in mud, as a polychromatic of brown, orange and yellow.


A picture of jouissance that has changed to sorrow and was reflective of my sister as she came home from university for the weekend.


Her mellifluous voice that usually phonates a zeal of optimism was missing as she told me of her experience of the first few weeks at university. Whilst she had met many people already on nights out, the tendency for other students to stay in their rooms throughout the day, lack of contact hours, excessive drinking and sleep deprivation had left her feeling lonely.


She’s not alone. The national College Health Association in Canada found that 70 percent of students felt lonely, depressed and isolated at university. Moreover, data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that between 2010 and 2015 there was a 210 percent increase in the number of students who left university as a result of mental health issues.


In an age when mental health forms a larger part of public policy for government than previously, and is a popular topic on social media, the lack of discourse at university and between students surrounding loneliness is alarming. This is particularly the case when it seems to be a pertinent prerequisite for the state of one’s mental health.


I recall that my first few months at university were solitary and difficult. Transitioning from being in a group of eleven, journeying around Europe after completing our A Levels to eating alone in my room and occasionally making reticent conversation with flat mates was a vicissitude of fortune.


To me, building friendships and studying, two fundamental parts of university, are closely aligned. For both, persistence is key. My best friend from university, Alex, is an introvert and would prefer to spend his days on his XBOX, playing FIFA in his dark and dingey bedroom that more suitably reflects a cave. He fondly recalls his immediate assumption of me as a ‘dead guy’ (Mancunian slang connotating distaste).


However, after continuously entering his room without asking, the social walls of restraint were broken, and we began to form a fruitful friendship over a plethora of topics such as football, politics, love and my inability to open cereal boxes correctly.


It was not the endless nights out that helped form our lasting friendship but the ability to trust one another and discuss any issues we were facing, to build propinquity as you take on the challenge of university together.


Nevertheless, universities can do more to help. Helplines are helpful and pious, but the increasing rates of loneliness implies that the current structure is flawed.  The University of Calgary, in Canada, offers an array of activities including movies nights, bowling, cooking classes and city tours. In addition, first year students are appointed peer mentors, third years, who can help people make a network of connections on campus. This idea is excellent, but is seemingly only present in the elite UK universities.


The prospect of receiving flyers through your door regarding a movie night to meet others is benevolent and considerate, rather than the Dominoes voucher or discounted silent disco tickets that are currently pushed under.


The university fees that began under New Labour and took a torrid rise to £9,000 under the coalition agreement, have made universities considerable profit. One can see the arguments for suitable fees – it is unfair for hardworking people to pay for our education through taxes - but charging for students upwards of £100 to join societies, the groups that help combat loneliness and increase social interaction is lamentable.


As the protagonist Iago does so cunningly in Shakespeare’s Othello, universities appear to help and assist with a student’s social troubles, only to stab them in a back by charging my sister £90 to join the philosophy netball team, preventing plenty of other poorer students from being able to access activities. Would it not be wise for universities to help subside the cost for societies, so students don’t have to add financial problems to their list of worries?


Universities’ rhetoric and actions seem to be conflicting. There needs to be a change in their approach if the rising numbers in loneliness are to drop.


But for now, I will keep telling my sister to knock on flat mates’ doors and skip a few nights out to afford the netball fees. Once you beat the loneliness, it’s the best three years of your life.



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