The minister for loneliness wants to encourage students to talk to each other more
"It’s frustrating when politicians come out with these platitudes and place responsibility on the individual to do something about what is fundamentally a community ill and not an individual ill.” Dr Katie Wright-Bevans, lecturer in psychology, Keele University
Loneliness and meeting new people are the biggest worries for students starting university, a government-commissioned survey has found.
Just over half (52%) of the 1,000 students surveyed by YouGov said they were worried about loneliness before starting their university course, while 64% said they were nervous about meeting new people and making friends.
The survey also found that while 92% of students said they had felt lonely in the last year, 43% worry they would be judged if they admitted to feeling lonely. This compared with 49% who said they were worried about managing money, 49% who were concerned about course difficulty and 26% who were nervous about housing.
The government’s minister for loneliness, Stuart Andrew, has launched an awareness campaign to address the problem of loneliness. He has enlisted the charity Sporting Wellness, Student Radio Association, Student Roost and Student Minds to help spread the message that students should open up and talk to each other.
Andrew said: “While freshers’ week is an exciting time for many, it can often be a daunting prospect for students. Moving away from home and away from friends and family can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially while trying to manage coursework, make new friends and often navigate a new city.”
He added: “Going to university can be the biggest transition young people have faced. 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.”
The survey also found that joining a society or club was the most successful intervention, with 42% of those who did this as a result of feeling lonely saying it was the most helpful action they took. “There are small things everyone can do to help alleviate loneliness and open up the conversation,” Andrew said. “This includes reaching out to those that might be struggling and spending time volunteering, such as by offering a regular conversation to someone feeling isolated.”
Jenny Smith, policy manager at Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, said: “This evidence shows that while loneliness is a common concern in our university communities, there’s a lot of sympathy and understanding among students.
“Anybody struggling can look at these figures and know what they’re going through isn’t unusual or uncommon. Of course, this doesn’t mean that any student should have to suffer in silence.”
The Campaign to End Loneliness welcomed government’s campaign. Robin Hewings, programme director, said: “There is real value in this campaign. Chronically lonely students are more likely to say that their courses are bad value for money and their expectations have not been met – they are about twice as likely to be considering withdrawing. Demographically, chronically lonely students are more likely be LGBTQ+, from DE social groups and females.” Concrete action, he said, “is largely best done by universities.”
Some people were critical, however. Dr Katie Wright-Bevans, a lecturer in psychology at Keele University, who has written about undergraduate loneliness, told the Guardian that “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.
It’s frustrating when politicians come out with these platitudes and place responsibility on the individual to do something about what is fundamentally a community ill and not an individual ill.”
Chloe Field, NUS vice-president for higher education, said the campaign was the latest example of the government “using mental health as a buzzword without doing anything practical about it,” adding: “This is very basic level advice. Students talk to each other all the time. The problem is that there’s no one to go to for counselling and there’s no therapy because of a crumbling NHS – and now university is so expensive that students have to work long hours in precarious part-time jobs, often late into the night after their studies. They’ve got no time to socialise and have fun. It’s no surprise they’re lonely.”
Mental illness is a growing problem among young people, and university students may be particularly at risk – a survey by Student Minds last year found that 57% of students reported a mental health issue. Leaving behind family and friends to start a new life elsewhere is challenging, and it’s not surprising that many students worry about feeling lonely. While it is good to see the government highlight the problem, the solutions it offers, which largely boil down to telling students to talk to each other more and join clubs and societies, seem unlikely to make a big difference. As Chloe Field says, many students now have to work part-time, leaving little opportunity for joining societies, and counselling services are often poorly-funded and have long waiting lists. A more robust strategy to tackle loneliness requires resourcing to provide more practical help to students in need.