It’s easy to become overwhelmed by university life. You’re frequently in a different city, have to navigate a large campus to attend lectures that don’t always make sense, and are surrounded by hundreds of strangers.
It’s therefore unsurprising that, according to new research from the Higher Education Policy Institute, nearly one-quarter of university students are lonely for the majority of their time there. I’ve been there before. I’ve experienced loneliness as a medical student, and I have no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated it for my peers and me over the last two years.
I spent my first year at university completely isolated from my peers, unlike previous years, who all enjoyed back-to-back socializing during Freshers Week – from society events to nights out. Instead of going to the Student Union for the Freshers Fair in September 2020, I logged onto Zoom lectures from my bedroom and spent seminars cringing with the awkwardness of being in an online breakout room with four other people I’d never met before.
I was becoming increasingly isolated and dissatisfied with my university experience during this time. Because of our different term dates and placements, we are often on a different schedule than other students when studying medicine, but not being able to meet and chat with fellow coursemates in person was terrible.
In November 2020, during my first practical session, I met someone face to face for the first time, but communication was difficult because we were all wearing full PPE. I didn’t make many friends that year, and it still amazes me how well the first years know each other now (after having a more normal experience with in-person lectures and living on campus than I did).
Now that the Covid restrictions have been lifted and university life has returned, I have a wonderful group of friends, but my year group is still suffering from the pandemic’s effects. For example, every time I attend a lecture, I meet a completely new person, which is unusual for a group of people who have been studying together for nearly two years.
We don’t talk about loneliness enough in general, but I believe it is even more prevalent at university. It’s harmful to admit you’re lonely because it carries a stigma – either because people assume you can’t make friends or because you crave attention. Social media, especially if you’re my age, can make things worse. You might think to yourself, “If they’re not having fun, why am I?” as you scroll through your Instagram feed full of happy people.
As a result, more conversations about loneliness at university are needed, and I hope that these new statistics prompt institutions and students to consider their options.
According to UCAS, student mental health declarations have increased by 450 percent over the last decade. Our course covers a lot of topics like anxiety and stress, but I’ve never heard anyone discuss loneliness. I believe it is because, compared to other mental health issues, we do not believe it is important to discuss. We need to make it more acceptable to talk about it so that people, whether at university or not, do not have to suffer in silence.
Despite the fact that the Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, loneliness will always exist. The first step is to make it possible for people to talk about how they are feeling, whether at university or among friends. Hopefully, now that life has been opened up, it will be much easier to talk, make friends, and have a more positive experience at university.
Zesha Saleem is a student doctor who works as a freelance writer.