“Have you remembered to pack a towel? What about your dressing gown? The non-stick frying pan I bought you last week?”
The inquisition continued as I sat surrounded by a vast quantity of boxes filled to the brim with everything I was told I would need before I set off on my journey to university.
After returning from my travels around South America, I felt as though I was in some kind of limbo, waiting to start the next chapter of my life. Each day, my social media accounts were bombarded with photos and videos from friends who were already two semesters into their adventure.
Everyone I had spoken to before leaving for university told me that I was going to have “the time of my life”. I could sense their jealousy as they recalled their times at university. I was overwhelmed by the anticipation of creating my own university memories.
However, a few months later, as I sat in my cramped room on campus, with the forms that I needed to drop out glaring from my computer screen, I struggled to work out why I felt so lonely. Everyone I knew had told me that I would be making the best memories of my life, and yet I was stuck in my room wanting to leave; this paradox only added salt to my mental wound.
What do student mental health services look like around the world?
‘Everybody knows someone who has broken’
How to deal with homesickness at university
Universities must adopt a proactive approach to mental health
I found myself in a situation that many students undoubtedly fall into: I didn’t get on with my flat, I had fallen out of my friendship group and I was yet to get fully involved with a sports team or student society. All this contributed to a crippling feeling of isolation. From an outsider’s perspective, this would seem extraordinary given that I’m pretty confident and I love to socialise – to be quite honest, it felt strange to me.
While I had my towel, my dressing gown, my non-stick frying pan and everything else that I was told I would need, no one had prepared me for the loneliness I felt.
What I had heard on social media and in conversations before starting my university life left me feeling that I was the only one who felt this way. In reality, I was one of many: almost half of UK students (46 per cent) admit to having feelings of loneliness during their time at university, and 37 per cent consider dropping out. Being aware of this statistic would have given me great comfort at the time, simply because I would have known that there were others who felt the same way. Looking back now, I see that what would have helped me most was honest conversation, something I hope this article will encourage.
Reflecting on my first two years at university, it would be easy to block out any period in which I felt low or lonely, so I do not blame the people who told me they had “the time of their life”. While it is true that I have experienced some of the best years, it is so important to remember that university isn’t all about partying and making lifelong friends – it can be really, really tough.
Thankfully, I took a few steps that stopped me filling out those forms and making a decision I know I would have regretted. Here’s some advice for anyone feeling lonely and isolated at university.
Join a society – even if it’s something you’ve never tried before, it will open you up to a completely new social network. If it involves exercise, even better!
Don’t feel like you’re stuck with one group of friends – university can be harsh and people can be harsher. The relationships you begin during the first few weeks are often forced and shallow. Just because you’ve been to pre-drinks with the same group every night for the past month, that doesn’t mean you have to stick with them, especially if you feel like it’s not a good fit.
Exercise – join the gym, go for a run, do some yoga; anything that gives your brain a break and re-energises you.
Get out of your room – I found staying in my room to be toxic. Sitting in your room alone is likely to make you feel lonelier than you are. Try going to the library or to a cafe to work – anywhere where conversation is taking place and you’re not deafened by silence.
You are not alone – there are plenty of people out there who are feeling exactly the same as you. Do not feel that you are alone in this. Hopefully, being aware of this will encourage you to follow the above advice.
However, if the sense of loneliness overwhelms you and you start to feel too anxious to do anything, talk to someone. Get in touch with the student services at your university if you feel that you are suffering from poor mental health or if your loneliness is feeling unbearable. If you would prefer a service external to university, there are a number of charities, such as Mind, CALM and Nightline, that will know how to help you.