Only the lonely – loneliness, student activities and mental wellbeing

Student mental health has arguably become the dominant student experience policy issue for the sector in the past couple of years.

Ministerial round tables, surveys, charters and initiatives from almost all of the sector bodies and umbrella groups have sought to shift this wicked policy problem into a space where the sector can learn from others and deploy interventions. Yet for all the activity, we still don’t know much about the causes, or fully understand the problem.

In 2018, the Office for National Statistics’ published a report on children and young people’s experiences of loneliness – and offered the sector some interesting clues as to what might be causing the mental health epidemic. 9.8% of young people aged 16-24 said they often or always felt lonely. The highest proportion of young people who often or always felt lonely was for 18 to 21 year-olds. And they were most likely to have undergone a major life change in the past year, such as transitioning into university or work.

So for our major spring event this year, and to mark the launch of our work with students’ unions, we commissioned Trendence UK to tell us more about loneliness on campus and to test some hypotheses that students and student leaders generated about what could be causing it. The acquisition of friendships and social capital is woven deeply into the value and purpose of higher education – but it may not be something being experienced by all students.

How lonely are students?

The results were stark. Over 15% of students said they felt lonely on a daily basis, and another third said they felt the same weekly. The figures were worse for disabled students, black and minority ethnic students and International students – and those students living at home were in a similar position.

Only 77% of students were able to agree that if they needed help, there would be people who would be there for them:

And 17% of students said that they do not consider themselves to have any true friends at university – rising to 20% for international students. Unsurprisingly, loneliness, friendship and concern re mental health are all linked in the data. Almost half of all students say that their mental health is one of their top three concerns – a figure that varies significantly depending on the number of friends that they have.

There were student life cycle effects, but friendship was still an issue for some all way through – 12.6% of final year students listed meeting new people / making friends in their top three concerns.

Factors related to loneliness

We also wanted to understand the link between friendship, mental health and activities on campus. Involvement in extra-curricular activity – societies, sports, representation and events – all had a positive association with friendship and positive mental health and wellbeing.

Only 3 in 4 students could agree that if they wanted company or to socialise, there were people they could call on, and loneliness is (unsurprisingly) directly related to number of friends:

Involvement in activities of all types appears to be related to better wellbeing:

And friendships were related to participation:

Policy considerations

Overall we found a strong link between loneliness, concern for mental health/poor wellbeing, the number of friends and student activities. The data suggests that more involvement in student activities is linked to better wellbeing and less loneliness. What we don’t know is the nature of causation – and it would be helpful to test this in further research at campus level.

As part of the Wonkhe SUs project we will be looking at these issues and wider issues relating to the role of SUs and their value as part of a forthcoming collective research initiative, participation in which will enable more detailed internal work to be carried out at institutional level.

There are a number of interesting policy areas that the findings can generate discussion on:

  • Whose responsibility? Often the “responsibility” for creating social activity falls on central services or SUs, but it is clear that social activity at course level and with programmes is crucial, particularly for day trippers and those considered (erroneously, these days) to be “non traditional”. Institutions and SUs would want to consider how this can be facilitated in partnership with academic departments, particularly for students that day trip and for those with demanding practice-based programmes.
  • When and What? Social activity is often assumed (particularly within the UK system) to be something that must be organised at the start of an academic year but this research suggests that a sustained effort is required. In addition it is clear from free text comments that students want more of a focus on basic activity, the facilitation of friendship and less of a focus on formal participation or having to pay for or join groups.
  • Access and Participation: It is clear that many of the issues surrounding class, barriers, comfort, aspiration etc are just as applicable to extra-curricular student activities as they are to academic programmes. Students’ unions, sports departments and other services organising such activity may want to consider the issues of participation from an access and participation perspective, and the OfS might usefully develop an agenda in this area given the links in this research to wellbeing and other research on the employability benefits of student activity.
  • Social Capital: In the folklore, university is a place where social capital is acquired. But there is a clear risk that this does not happen. We might theorise that both bonding social capital (where students fund those like them) is much easier for some students to acquire than others; and bridging social capital requires real effort to develop on the part of universities and SUs, particularly for anyone not young, white, full time and affluent.

Student voices

How might providers and their SUs go about addressing these issues? We asked students to describe some of the barriers to those activities, and a host of quotes from students are in the PDF report to download.

Some described practical issues – like commuting or having family commitments. Others described their background, fearing that that their schooling or class would mean that other students were naturally better at sport, or music. Many described an off-putting culture focussed on alcohol and hedonistic behaviour. Most believed that students’ unions and universities should do more to arrange activities that depend less on “joining” groups.

We also asked students what more that universities could do to prevent students from feeling lonely. Students identified a raft of practical suggestions to improve the culture of peer support on campus and encourage students to help each other. And we asked students what could be done to support students struggling with their mental health. Unsurprisingly, investing in counselling staff was a common refrain, but students identified a range of other suggestions related to both individual support and peer support.

The research was conducted via the Trendence UK student database through an online survey in January 2019. Further detail, along with the respondent profile is available in the report.

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