It’s the first week of uni and you have gone to many events and parties. You’ve met many people.
The question of how to deal with loneliness does not even cross your mind.
Everything was just exciting at the start, especially as everyone felt the same rush and everyone was looking to make friends. You are all in the same boat.
As an international student, you are possibly getting used to a new culture, language and climate as well.
After the initial mad rush, however, you realise that while you have met so many lovely people, the connections you made are fleeting at best.
Some have potential for real friendships, but it is too early to tell.
Around this point, loneliness can set in. You start to miss the little comforts of home or having your best friend just around the corner. You miss your parents and your childhood pet.
You feel lonely. It is a weird, hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach
You may try to deny it: how could you be lonely when surrounded by so many people?
Britannica describes it best: “Loneliness is a distressing experience that occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality than desired.”
The sea of people around may be large in quantity, but you lack quality connections.
Friendships, real friendships anyway, take time to develop, so feeling lonely in the mean time is to be expected.
When figuring out how to deal with loneliness, it is important to note that you are not alone.
In 2021, 26% of students reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 8% of the adult population in the UK over a similar period, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics.
In Norway, a 2020 study revealed that for students between the ages of 18 and 35, the youngest and oldest students had the highest levels of loneliness.
There was also a considerable increase in loneliness from 2014 (16.5%) to 2018 (23.6%).
It is also important to know that “how to deal with loneliness” is a question that you must answer — and quickly.
A report by the US Surgeon General found that Americans are so lonely that it is threatening their physical and mental health.
So much so that feeling socially isolated — that is, being disconnected from families, friends, and community — is the same as smoking up to 15 cigarettes every day.
Being socially isolated and lonely puts someone at higher risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and dementia, as well as infectious diseases.
How to deal with loneliness: The first step is to understand it
A National Library of Medicine study revealed that 32.4% of university students in Germany report feeling moderately lonely, while 3.2% report feeling severely lonely.
The study then split loneliness into two categories: emotional (lack of intimate relationships) and social (lack of social relationships).
Even with this research, it is clear to see that loneliness affects individuals in different ways, such as the following:
- You don’t have your usual support system nearby
- You see everyone else finding a boyfriend, girlfriend or partner
- You’re unfamiliar with your new routine and programme
- You feel like no one cares about you
- You feel anxious and depressed
- You are overwhelmed by doing tasks you’ve never done before
- You feel inadequate when comparing yourself ot others.
For some, loneliness is a passing feeling, but for others, there can be serious consequences to their health.
Chronic loneliness can stress your body, leading to more serious illnesses, from heart problems and depression to decreased memory and a higher risk of drug abuse.
Identifying what is wrong is often the first step on how to deal with loneliness.
The results of a study found that it was important to make students aware of their loneliness early.
This is because the magnitude of loneliness was higher among the first-year student group, female students, students with poor economic status, and those who smoked and lived in dormitories.
It adds that it is important to investigate “the circumstances and factors that exacerbate this sensation among first-year students (mainly between 18-21 years old), and devising intervention to alleviate it.”
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How to deal with loneliness without people gaslighting you
The BBC reports that university students are far lonelier than other adults, adding that almost one in four students are lonely most or all of the time.
The story tells the tale of Taylor Jones, a student who threw up and had panic attacks because he was lonely in the first three months of university.
When he approached his university for support, they told him his feelings were normal. He dropped out due to lack of support.
In the UK, an awareness campaign has been launched to tackle the issue of loneliness.
British minister Stuart Andrew launched said campaign in partnership with the charity Sporting Wellness, Student Radio Association, Student Roost and Student Minds.
The UK government has made this issue a priority. Since 2018, 80 million pounds have been invested, including over 34 million pounds, in reducing loneliness caused by the pandemic.
“Going to university can be the biggest transition young people have faced,” Andrew says.
“We want them to enjoy their experience at university and excel in their education, so we’re highlighting that it will help them to speak to other undergraduates about their feelings.”
Over 3.6 million pounds has been invested in Student Space, a mental health and wellbeing online platform offering online mental health support to all students in England and Wales until 2026.
While this all seems good on paper, many have noted the tokenistic approach of the campaign.
Paul Crawford, professor of health humanities at the School of Health Sciences at Nottingham University and a director at the Institute of Mental Health, found that the campaign ignored the student realities.
He notes that the depletion of libraries, youth centres and swimming pools destroyed the usual spaces where young people learned how to build relationships.
Instead of showing how to deal with loneliness, they could prevent it altogether.
Dr. Katie Wright-Bevans, a lecturer in psychology at Keele University, who has written about undergraduate loneliness, agrees.
“Anything that places responsibility on the individual to connect with others, without any meaningful infrastructure supporting that connection, is dangerous because it risks exacerbating existing loneliness and perpetuating a sense of blame,” she says.
Differentiating between the tokenistic actions of governments and actual methods on how to deal with loneliness can be tricky.
If you’re dealing with loneliness, we have a few tips for you to take the initiative and help yourself.
How to deal with loneliness as an individual
1. Join your student union or clubs and organisations
Thinking of how to deal with loneliness while studying at university? One of the best ways to do so is by joining your university’s student union or any clubs and organisations.
As these are places for people who share common interests, it’s much easier to break the ice and start building connections.
Whether you have a passion for sports like football and cricket or you prefer the arts like drama and theatre, joining these clubs may help you feel closer to home.
You could even consider stepping out of your comfort zone and joining a club of something you have never tried.
For example, if your university has a salsa dance club, why not give it a try? You may discover your passion for dancing while finding new friends and experiencing different cultures.
Alternatively, if you are looking to gain skills that will be useful in your career, you could join the Model United Nations (MUN) club. This will allow you to gain public speaking and negotiation skills.
By participating in MUN conferences and engaging in discussions about global issues, you will develop a deeper understanding of international affairs, and better understand your place in the world.
2. Keep in touch with friends and family back home
Leaving your friends and family back home to study abroad is not easy. Instead of feeling homesick alone in your dorm room, do your best to stay connected with them.
These days, with the rise of technology, it is so much easier to stay in touch with those who are far away. Plan a Zoom call, virtual game night or even a Netflix Party where you can watch movies together.
Sure, it’s not the same but your friends and family will be glad you reached out.
Though it can be hard to stay in touch while balancing classes and completing assignments, you could create a routine to schedule a weekly video call with either your friends or family.
Still can’t find a time that works? Try video-ing yourself as you walk to university or the shops while you narrate your day.
An audio note works too. Your friends and family can then respond when they have time.
These calls and messages, though not live and are pre-recorded, will allow you to share your experiences, hear familiar voices and receive emotional support from loved ones.
The regular connection can help you feel less alone and find comfort in knowing you have a strong support system even from afar.
Being an international student overseas isn’t easy. Instead of keeping it all in, you could share your troubles with those close to you, and to your surprise, they may offer advice and coping strategies on how to deal with loneliness.
3. Stepping out of your comfort zone
If you are looking for an effective way on how to deal with loneliness, this might be the solution for you.
Stepping out of your comfort zone and exploring new people and cultures is an excellent way to combat loneliness. While daunting, this process can be both empowering and enriching.
For example, if you come from an Asian country and choose to study in Europe, the cultural differences can be overwhelming.
To overcome this, join a language exchange programme, participate in cultural events or befriend the locals.
University of Liverpool has a Conversation Exchange Programme (Tandem) to practise speaking a language in a more relaxed and social context.
Columbia University has something similar with its Language Exchange Program (LEP), helping students find a language partner to practice with.
Check out clubs and societies too.
For instance, University of Glasgow has the Language4Water society, where you can develop your language skills and provide some of the worlds poorest people with access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene services.
All these opportunities allow you to practise your skills and meet new people.
Some universities have initiatives like visiting Puppy Day to help student destress. Source: AFP
The role of universities in helping students overcome loneliness
Universities have a responsibility to help international students overcome loneliness because it directly affects their well-being and academic success.
Loneliness can make students feel sad, isolated and even homesick, which can have a negative impact on their mental health.
One university in the UK that is working towards helping international students deal with loneliness is the University of Warwick.
The University of Warwick has a Global Connections programme that offers in-person socials and an informal online community where students can come together to mix with others from different backgrounds through activities, games or conversations.
This includes organising celebrations for Holi, Chinese New Year and Holi and activities such as playing board games and ice breakers.
Similarly, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) International Students Office (ISO) hosts various events, including a popular “Speed Friending” event, to help international students meet and socialise.
Aside from that, many events have been organised to make international students feel more welcome.
This includes cooking sessions, a boba tea evening break, a breakfast for dinner event and many more. They also provide resources for mental health and well-being.