Up and down the country, in the UK at least, parents will be receiving tearful telephone calls from their children that they happily packed off to university just two months ago. I know because we have had that phone call. This can be very alarming not only that one’s child is not having the best time but also the concern, that they may drop out. After all those schooling years of tears and effort - and let’s be frank the money, our investment in our children’s education seems precariously poised to fail. However, after that telephone conversation, I consoled myself and my wife that we were probably not in the minority but rather, we were the majority.
Twenty years ago, I was a junior research assistant to the psychologist Shirley Fisher, who had made a career of studying stress at work. She had noted that many students were unhappy during their first term at Dundee University in Scotland were she was based. Moreover, the UK Economic and Social Research Council were concerned at the number of post-graduate students receiving grants who were dropping out of university. So we conducted a series of studies of first year students coming from around the country to attend university and nursing colleges. Although university is hardly a stressful workplace, for many young adults it represents a milestone of leaving home and stepping out in the big wide world alone. Could we predict how they would cope and who would falter?
We questioned potential students before they arrived and about two months after starting their courses to get the before and after measures of happiness, concentration and basic personality. Just as Shirley had predicted, we found that two out of three students reported increased anxiety, depression, confusion, disrupted sleep and a general yearning for family and friends during their first term - they were homesick. We found no difference between males and females and age was not relevant. Most were not homesick at first but this gradually increased over the term with a peak at 6-8 weeks into the course. It was worse in the morning and night suggesting that the day’s activities kept most pre-occupied and not ruminating about their plight. Not too surprisingly, those that had been to boarding school as pupils were less likely to become homesick as university students.
Any major life transition represents a change in routines and familiarity, leading to what psychologists call a perceived loss of control. When we lose this perception of control, we become neurotic, perform poorly on tasks and even have lowered pain thresholds. We are such creatures of habit that we can find it difficult to cope with new situations that require adaptation. Homesickness is one example that leads to neurotic symptoms and disrupted concentration. The good news is that most students eventually adapt to their new environment but with the increased pressure to perform and succeed, no doubt exacerbated by the financial debt of tuition fees, one wonders if we are creating the best environment for young minds. And in the US, I wonder how that annual migration home for Thanksgiving contributes to the feelings of homesickness. Maybe this national event serves to remind many of our young that there is no place like home, which is why it is such a powerful holiday.