The End of College Loneliness During COVID

Parents can encourage young adults to overcome emotional and social loneliness.

Posted Feb 28, 2021

I recently started watching reruns of Friends without even thinking why, other than it is a very funny show. I’ve also learned this show is popular with college students I work with in our campus psychiatry clinic. Several say watching Friends provides relief from COVID stress; laughter is truly the best medicine. But I think we are watching for an additional reason: nostalgia for a time when friends could be present for each other emotionally and physically. Hearing the theme song “I’ll be there for you” warms all of our hearts during these lonely times. 

How College Students Are Experiencing Loneliness

These are the kinds of statements I am hearing from students:

“I tested positive for COVID so I’ve been quarantining in my room for two weeks. I wasn’t that sick, so I’ve been able to keep up with schoolwork. But I really miss my friends.”

“I’m staying home with my parents and doing classes remotely this semester. This is not what I expected of my senior year. I imagined making long-lasting memories with my friends, but I’m just feeling disconnected from them.”

“It’s the end of freshman year and I haven’t made any new friends at school. I’ve kept in touch with former high school classmates but it’s not the same.”

Loneliness has increased for all Americans since the pandemic, most significantly for young adults. In an October 2020 survey, 61 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds reported significant levels of loneliness in the last month and 43% of 18- to 25-year-olds said their loneliness increased since the outbreak of the pandemic. This survey was conducted by Making Caring Common, a project to increase caring connections among children. The faculty director of this group, Richard Weissbourd, talked about students experiencing loneliness before the project, disconnected from their “inherited families” and not yet finding their “chosen families.” In Friends, the characters form their chosen families for life. What happens when teens and young adults feel disconnected from their family and/or friends? 

While we cannot confirm causation, many mental health professionals believe loneliness is contributing to the increase in mental health problems in teenagers and young adults since the onset of the pandemic. For example, there has been an increase in the proportion of ER visits related to mental health concerns for 12- to 17-year-olds from April to October of 2020. In a June 2020 survey of adults, 18- to 24-year-olds were found to have the highest rate of anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts of any age group. Several previous studies have linked loneliness to depression, anxiety, and suicide. Many view loneliness as another pandemic that needs to be addressed. 

How College Students Are Defeating Loneliness

Students have shared with me how they are dealing with their loneliness: 

“When I play video games with friends online we talk and get a chance to catch up.”

“I have a picnic in a park every Saturday with friends.”

“I’m joining the psychology society even though we are meeting online.”

What can students do now to meet safely? None of us knows when COVID restrictions will lessen. Each state and each college have different rules. It is likely COVID cases will decline and there will be more opportunities for students to meet in person. In the meantime, you can ask your college student if they are feeling lonely. Keep in mind that there are two categories of loneliness: emotional loneliness and social loneliness. Emotional loneliness is the lack of a close relationship, someone you can confide in and get support from. Social loneliness is the lack of a network of friends and family that you share common interests with.

If your child is feeling lonely, here is what I recommend: 

1. Encourage emotional connection. 

It’s critical that your college student has a friend and/or family member they can open up to when they are struggling or in crisis. Ideally, a parent is one of the people a college student can turn to. If you feel your relationship with your child is suboptimal, try to have a calm conversation about this and explore what is getting in the way of communication. Many students who struggle with depression or suicidal thoughts are afraid to tell their parents, worrying they will get upset or overreact. It can help if your student and you talk to a therapist to strategize how you best can support your student.

Naturally, you also want your child to have some close college relationships. Many students have formed “pods” of close friends or roommates that they feel safe being with. If your child is facing challenges in making friends during college, encourage them to seek individual and group therapy, even if it is online. A therapist can recommend campus resources to meet other students. If your student has social anxiety that makes it hard for them to meet new people, they can participate in group therapy to develop social skills. In addition, many campuses offer diverse communities support groups and activities to create a sense of belonging. 

2. Encourage social connection.

While having a few close relationships is important, having a wide array of relationships of varying degrees of closeness enhances emotional and physical health. Now more than ever, it is critical that your child join campus activities, even if they are meeting online. Many colleges have success coaches or activities advisors who can help find the club that is right for your student. Encourage your student to explore their passions through clubs and volunteer work or connect with co-workers at their jobs. 

There might be safe, college-sanctioned ways for students to gather outdoors. Some schools are offering outdoor yoga classes. For students in warmer climates, walking, hiking, riding bikes, and kayaking together are relatively safe. Some colleges in colder climates offer outdoor adventures like skiing and snowboarding. 

Students can reach out to old friends they have not heard from in a while or connect with students on campus by becoming a mentor. If your student is lonely, it is likely many other students are, too, and by reaching out they can make the campus a more caring place. 

As a psychiatrist, I have always asked about social connections during the initial visit and at follow-up appointments, because I have seen first-hand how strong social support can improve mental health, and how a lack of social support can exacerbate anxiety and despair. Now is the time to encourage your college student to seek an array of social connections, a virtual “Central Perk” where they can gather online or outdoors and be there for each other.

©2021 Marcia Morris, all rights reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.