The lonely heart: loneliness and isolation at university

The effects of loneliness are far more than emotional

Increasingly, loneliness is becoming an issue on university campuses and in Britain more generally. With overall loneliness comes a feeling of alienation, which can lead to more serious problems, both mental and physical. According to Psychology Today, lonely people are at a greater risk of depression, alcoholism, higher stress and anxiety levels, and often sleep less, to name a few.

As Dr Keming Yang, a lecturer in sociology at Durham, has written, “Loneliness is the difference between the existing social relations and desired ones”. For most who experience loneliness, it is easy to recognise how we would want to fill this ‘difference’: with friends, with a relationship, with better familial bonds. However, what is less clear is how to combat loneliness beyond the counsellor or doctor’s office.

At school, I struggled with loneliness of all kinds. I felt isolated, even from my friends, and I was desperate to leave, to get to the utopia of university. For many, university is the last barrier between us and the real world, it is the perfect balance of work and fun. Over the last few years, I have made some of my closest friends and a lot of the loneliness I experienced in the past evaporated. However, I still have a lingering sense of loneliness that relentlessly hangs over me. Looking back to Yang’s explanation, I know that ‘difference’ for me is in not having a romantic relationship.

During my first year I viewed university, and still do to a large extent, as the last place where love can be easily found. After all, where else are you going to have thousands of twenty-somethings with common interests and goals milling about in one place? Something of a romantic, I envisaged that locking eyes with someone in the dining hall would naturally lead to something; or that a smile in a seminar meant more than it did.

I have since undeceived myself. I realised that more often than not, we are not brave enough to risk friendships over confessions of feelings. I am one of these people who is incapable of voicing my feelings for all the usual reasons: fear of rejection, humiliation, and the knowledge of mutual friends’ inevitable conversations. So, after three years of being rejected or rejecting, I have settled into an unhealthy pattern of loneliness and unspoken feelings.

Fortunately, this is the only kind of loneliness I have experienced at Durham. However, if I struggle with this, I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be to experience university life without a solid group of friends. No one imagines before leaving home that his or her university years will be ones of alienation or seclusion. Thus the shock of feeling this way makes the disappointment all the worse and might actually exacerbate the harmful effects loneliness can have.

Whereas I can quickly identify how I might alleviate my own loneliness—taking a single risk by letting this one person know how I feel—others’ struggle with loneliness is not so cut and dry. After listing the negative and far-reaching effects of loneliness, the closest Psychology Today gets to offering advice is to say, “social skills are crucial for your health”. Hardly helpful and already common knowledge.

Most articles detailing how to deal with loneliness suggest first and foremost that developing friendships is key. But this is easier said than done, especially in Durham where friendship groups are often formed in the first days of Fresher’s Week, rarely altered afterward. For people struggling at Durham, I would suggest getting involved in one of SCA’s (Student Community Action) programs or a collegiate run charity or volunteer project, which often have a revolving door of opportunities each term. Alternatively, there are a number of societies that are easier than others to show up to alone: life drawing through Durham University Art Society or attending a few yoga classes at the DSU. All of these offer an opportunity to meet new people without the pressure of making conversation. Simply getting out of one’s room, even to participate in something alone, can help alleviate feelings of isolation.

It isn’t easy to discuss loneliness openly, even among friends it can feel like a taboo. I certainly don’t go around telling my friends that the lack of a romantic relationship has a deeper effect on me than they imagine. This is especially true because I often think that I shouldn’t feel lonely at all—I have a group of friends that I rely on and trust. On the surface there seems to be something un-feminist, or needy about the loneliness that springs up from being perpetually single. It is important to remember—something I have to remind myself—that loneliness can effect even the most outgoing of people and that it should not be a source of embarrassment.

Loneliness and its negative health effects should always be treated seriously. If you are struggling with loneliness, depression, or other related issues, seek help through your college’s welfare team, college office, or at the university’s counselling services

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