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The Lonely Student. Part of a Bigger Problem?

During lunch break many people are gathered below the staircase near De Refter for a serious conversation: talking about loneliness among students. Health researcher Maaike Verhagen starts with asking the public: “Has anyone of you ever felt lonely?” Almost all the attendees of this lecture – many of them students –  raise their hands. Loneliness is a serious problem during all stages of life, but still largely unacknowledged when it comes to students. Do we need to get worried? Verhagen, student psychologist Marieke van der Burgh and Radboud-student Aggie van Huisseling shed their light on this urgent question.

Getting a grip on loneliness

“When do we speak of loneliness?” Verhagen started with this essential question. In her research area, scientists define loneliness as “an unintentional difference between how many relations some has and how many relations someone wants to have.” Loneliness is about how someone feels – it is a subjective experience. Research shows furthermore that the quality of relationships is much more important than the quantity. Being surrounded by many people does not make you not lonely. For instance, think of university campuses: while there are masses of people, many students feel lonely.

Why we feel lonely

There is an evolutionary story to be told about the feeling of loneliness according to Verhagen. Like hunger, loneliness has a signaling function. If we are hungry, we will try to find food. Likewise, when we feel lonely, we will try to meet new people. In this sense, feelings of loneliness are adaptive: they motivate people to take action. But for many people this is not so easy. Loneliness becomes a real problem when, for whatever reasons, people fail to connect satisfyingly with others. While a little bit of loneliness can be motivating, chronic loneliness can lead to depression, heart and vascular diseases, insomnia and other health issues. Considering these consequences, loneliness is said to be as bad as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

The time of your life?

What lies underneath these feelings of loneliness? The student life is always presented as “the best time of your life”. For many students, reality does not live up to this expectation. Add to that the pressure to get good grades, to distinguish yourself from the masses to get a job, student loan debts and the way social media can influence your self-image and you may understand why feelings of loneliness are lurking. Verhagen said that going to university is always a big transition. “Lots of studying, the lack of inviting meeting spaces and the anonymous atmosphere at university campuses, are factors that students themselves mention as causes of loneliness.” For master’s students working on their theses, these factors unmistakably contribute to loneliness.

First step: recognition

So what can we do about it? “The most important part is recognition,” Verhagen stated confidently. We must counter the taboo that surrounds loneliness. “An important part is to learn to recognize when others are lonely.” Talking with others if you feel lonely is also important, but she admits that this can be difficult. Universities, therefore, can and should also do something about this problem. For example, smaller classes might make it easier to get in contact with other people. A university wide strategy to map loneliness amongst students and to personally assist those who need it, is indispensable.

A primary problem

After Verhagen’s lecture,  student psychologist Marieke van den Burgh and Honour-student Aggie van Huisseling joined the stage for the discussion. Philosopher Cees Leijenhorst, who led the conversation, asked Van den Burgh whether she recognized the problems that Verhagen mentioned? “I do”, said Van der Burgh. While loneliness is normally not the primary reason why people come to the student psychologist, she notices that loneliness is often something students are struggling with. Verhagen added that loneliness is often seen as a “secondary problem”, something that is a side-effect of a more serious problem. This is wrong, according to her, because it is a problem in itself as well.

Social media and expectation management

Social media were also an important topic of discussion. “With all those social channels, how can you still be lonely?”, Cees asked Van Huisseling. She gave a twofold answer. “If social media are used to keep in contact with others, it can prevent loneliness. On the other hand, if you continuously see pictures of successful people while you are watching Netflix on the couch, social media can strengthen feelings of loneliness.”

Social media fuel the idea that you must be the best version of yourself. Apart from pressure to perform, your life should also be interesting. “Students have the idea that they should succeed in every aspect of life,” Verhagen said. How can we counter these intuitions? “Expectation management is always good”, answered Van den Burgh. “Have realistic expectations of friendships, relations and how people use social media.” When it comes to social media, there is more than what meets the eye.

A problem for all of us

While loneliness is a problem of all times and ages, the pressure on the current generation of students is high. The problem is that there is still a taboo on feeling lonely. A big task lays ahead for universities to cope with this problem. “Many universities in England already have policies to tackle loneliness among students,” mentions Van Huisseling. Recognition is the first step to a solution. As Verhagen points out, “loneliness is a problem for all of us”.

This report was written by Bas van Woerkum, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.