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How lonely are today’s students?

Jim Dickinson and Arthi Nachiappan look at the latest ONS research on loneliness and young people
This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Arthi was an Editorial Assistant at Wonkhe.

Student mental health has been high on the agenda over the past couple of years. Apart from speculation about social media and marketisation, we don’t know much about the causes. There has been a lot of activity on treating the problem – counselling services, pet therapy, stress awareness weeks – but not so much aimed at preventing problems in the first place.

The Office for National Statistics’ report on children and young people’s experiences of loneliness is helpful and offers some interesting clues as to what might be causing the mental health epidemic.

Some numbers

First some quantitative findings: 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 most likely to have undergone a major life change in the past year, such as transitioning into university or work.

Housing is a major factor influencing loneliness with those living rent free more likely to report hardly ever or never feeling lonely compared with those who rented. And those who agreed that they had “people that they could call on if they wanted company” were more likely to report that they hardly ever or never felt lonely.

Freshers folklore

It’s in the qualitative responses that things start to get really interesting. In freshers folklore, moving to new university presents unbridled opportunities to expand friendships, but ONS found that these transitions can strain existing social networks and sources of social support, potentially giving rise to loneliness.

In my first year of university I moved to a different city and obviously I was in a new place with new people. There was none of my friends there. I was away from my family and I’m quite a home bird … I was on the phone every night saying I want to come home.” (Female, 22 years)

Some of my friends who went to university, I know that they didn’t enjoy the first year, and they felt a little bit isolated … It’s like when they come home they feel like they can be more comfortable … you may make friends but you … don’t have as many companions as they would at home.” (Male, 19 years)

And that transition can be really challenging for young people with disabilities.

Being the first wheelchair user in my uni as well was a really surreal situation. I felt incredibly lonely at times in terms of how I had to deal with things. How, when barriers arrived in terms of access to education and things, having to go at it alone because my peers could sympathise but they couldn’t understand what I was going through. I found it quite lonely being away from my support network for such a long period of time because it was pretty much three years.” (Female, aged 21 years)

Academic issues

This isn’t just about socialising. ONS found that the pressures of exams and coursework deadlines were a key time when students separating themselves from others and withdrew from activities leading to loneliness and isolation.

It was more deadline times. So, beginning of December and then January with the exams and that May with the exams and essay times, coursework hand-ins, that I would say … the people that I lived with, there were three of us and we just, you know. I wouldn’t come out my room, they wouldn’t come out their rooms, it was just a very lonely.” (Female, 20 years)

Well I know that sometimes at university my flatmates … if they’d had quite a stressful week at university they might feel lonely if they can’t be going out because they’ve got deadlines, they can’t be seeing people, so that’s probably the instance when I’ve noticed if my friends are feeling lonely.” (Female, 24 years)

Just as interesting is the suggestion that students might be keeping this aspect of their lives secret. Some discussed how they covered up loneliness and other negative emotions, presenting themselves as they wanted to be seen – a way to disguise vulnerability, and also to preserve social connections by presenting oneself as someone who “fits in”.

I felt incredibly lonely at times in terms of how I had to deal with things… I think I’ve grown used to, at university hiding how I felt. Kind of being quite an extrovert in terms of faking my emotions but in terms of becoming quite introverted in terms of hiding loneliness because it just became the norm, and so I’ve kind of learnt to just keep it to myself quite a lot.” (Female, 21 years)


So what can be done? ONS found that there were three types of challenges:

  • Individual emotional or mental hurdles, such as shyness, introversion, or mental health challenges
  • Practical hurdles, such as transport and lack of money for joining in activities, accessibility issues linked to mobility or sensory impairments
  • Social hurdles, linked to acceptance by others and fitting in, which may relate to perceived social, cultural, ethnic and other visible or presumed differences.

And their suggestions for universities are straightforward:

  • Creating opportunities to make social connections
  • Organising activities and clubs
  • Community activities
  • Volunteering.

More questions than answers

The ONS work covers two broad cohorts – children (aged 10 to 15 years) young people (aged 16 to 24 years), to inform the government’s loneliness strategy which was announced by Theresa May in October. Seen strictly through an HE lens, it raises more questions than answers.

Are there particular types of students affected by the problem? What is the interrelationship between aspects of teaching, learning and assessment and loneliness? Is this a bigger problem for day trippers or those living on campus? How isolated are international students? And what are the things that universities and their students’ unions could do that would make the biggest difference? In the run up to our “Secret Life of Students” event in March, we’ll be looking more closely at all of these questions.

What is already clear from wider research is that belonging and friendship is key to continuation, success and satisfaction. What needs to be even clearer is what we can do as a sector to help students build the social capital that the folklore offers.

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