Starting college or university is potentially an exciting, rewarding time, when true independence and freedom are first experienced. But there can be a difficult side too. Many people don’t know anyone when they start college. Students can settle into friendships and groups very quickly, but if you find it difficult to do the same, loneliness and homesickness can take over.
Although it’s not often talked about, loneliness is part of the transition to college for a lot of people. It’s not easy to endure, and many students feel uncomfortable sharing their feelings about it. Also, loneliness is not always identified as a problem because it can get mixed in with homesickness, anxiety, a sense of inadequacy and depression.
Some experts feel that technology has made it more difficult for students to adjust to college. Social media is very useful for making plans when students have good connections in place, but it can amplify loneliness if they don’t. Seeing everyone else involved in social activities highlights the lack of that for those who aren’t. Also, many people retreat into online games or into Netflix binges, which can further hinder attempts to connect face to face.
Expectations of what college life will be like can also complicate the transition. Many students experience shock when it’s not as expected and if they feel overwhelmed by negative emotions. The vision they had for their time in college feels very different to what they’re really experiencing.
What you can do
One contributing factor to loneliness in college is not being busy enough. It’s important for new students to pick something — a club, activity or volunteer opportunity — to dedicate time to.
Another contributing factor is shyness. It’s not always easy to put yourself out there to meet people. Loneliness by itself isn’t a mental health condition, but other conditions, like social anxiety, are connected to loneliness. Socially anxious students have a harder time starting conversations, or they worry that they won’t have the skills to maintain friendships.
To combat this, it is important to be proactive in the first months by initiating study meetings, getting together for coffee or lunch with other new students and going along to clubs or groups you are interested in. This is not easy and it will be a struggle to put yourself in these situations if it does not come naturally to you, but it will be worth it.
Students also benefit from knowing others are having a hard time too, no matter how happy they look on Facebook, Instagram or around the college. The trouble is nobody wants to show they’re struggling. Nobody likes to stand out in this way, but students who can own how lonely they are end up connecting with people. It can bring you closer to others when you can admit things aren’t all good and when you show some vulnerability.
Colleges are well equipped to help, offering services such as counselling and other support services. Student unions now do a lot of work around maintaining positive mental health. Colleges also offer many online supports. But supports are no good if they are not used. Fight the embarrassment and approach someone for help if you feel you need it. We all need support at some time or other.
Can parents help? Absolutely yes. Follow your child’s lead. If they call home because they’re homesick and lonely, listen and be supportive but then direct them towards other supports or back towards college resources. It can be a difficult adjustment to step back and let them sort it out in their own way, but communicating excessively with your child isn’t necessarily in their best interest, and it may hinder their adjustment. It’s important and appropriate to support them, but it’s equally important not to solve their problems for them.
Starting college and loneliness are not often thought of in the same sentence. However it is surprisingly common to feel lonely at this time. If you have started college and are struggling with loneliness or any other issue and it seems too difficult to sort out on your own, get help. Look for what’s out there. We often believe there are no supports before even looking. Follow the tips above and check out the links below.
Jannah Walshe is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Castlebar and Westport. A fully accredited member of The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, she can be contacted via www.jannahwalshe.ie, or at firstname.lastname@example.org or 085 1372528.