As a college professor for over two decades, I have witnessed the unfolding mental health crisis on campus firsthand. We’ve known for a while now that students have been showing up on campus more stressed out, anxious, depressed, and lonely than ever before. It’s a painful reality but it’s not really news. What is newsworthy is the current cultural moment and how it is impacting students’ mental health, their perceptions of loneliness, and their sense of themselves and the world. Living through a pandemic is exacerbating a sense of loneliness for many college students.
At its best and under non-pandemic circumstances, college is a unique time for people to gather and be together in all the forms that might take—living, learning, eating, working, playing, and socializing. However, COVID-19 has compromised so many of the ways we rely on for being social, and the college experience is no exception.
Research has shown that students’ reports of being lonely have continued to increase since the early 1990s. And now we have a global event that is shaping and constraining people’s behavioral options and ability to move about in the world. What does this mean for college students for whom this was supposed to be a time to individuate from their families, move about in new ways and in new places, and try out new versions of themselves?
As I write this article on 9/11, I think about how college students were born, or in diapers, during a time of disaster and amid cries of anxiety and insecurity. Now they are starting college at a time when there is a sense of danger lurking everywhere. Since 2001, parenting became more intense and engineered than ever before, and more strategic and preemptive. It is a cruel irony that young people who have come of age most in need of flying on their own are either being flung back into the nest if their schools did not allow them on campus, or facing the prospect of quarantine or isolation on campus where media reports make it appear they are being thrown to the wolves.
As a professor, I know that the campus experience usually resembles space—space to enlarge one’s worldview, space to think and reflect, space to create, space to explore new activities, space to try on new ways of being in the world, space to reinvent oneself—space to be and to breathe.
One of the saddest things I have witnessed as campus planning has unfolded nationwide is how the plans themselves mirrored the same detrimental effects of overparenting we have witnessed over the past couple decades. Just as the effects of overparenting have left so many young people more anxious, depressed, confused, and lonely than ever, campus reopening plans are leaving many students and their parents feeling these same ill effects.
I see parents wanting to celebrate their students’ new stage in life while also now feeling duped because the college experience is already starting to look even less desirable than they had imagined. Many faculty members have been sounding alarm bells for months, concerned that what’s needed to make a campus safe right now is completely at odds with the iconic experience students crave. Nationwide, many faculty members have expressed concerns about attempts to lure students and parents who are understandably desperate for some semblance of normalcy and are prey to the promise of what they’ve long hungered and planned for—to have the quintessential campus experience. Sadly, across the country faculty are being blamed for classes that have gone online as though they created the problems on campus. Yet, in insisting on trying to re-open, it is colleges that have engineered a certain type of loneliness—one I hope institutions, and those that inhabit them, can eventually bounce back from.
I get it. This isn’t what you bargained for and yet it’s what you got. So, what can you do, and how can you feel less lonely?
1. Acknowledge the reality. A lot of what is happening sucks. How do we become more present even in, and because of, this? Allow yourself to feel what is, and then commit to not letting it have a hostile takeover of your day.
2. Recognize that thoughts of loneliness are typical and very normal. First, it’s important to remember that for most students, freshman year is hard—okay, many aspects of it just suck. I routinely meet with students who talk about wanting to transfer, assuming that this will cure their loneliness. It is often good practice for students to try to "be here now," to quote Buddhist monk Ram Dass, and to think through how to sit with, and be in closer touch with, difficult feelings. It can take a while for a new place to feel like home. It often takes at least a year or two. It’s a freakin’ pandemic, so it’s harder.
3. Take advantage of office hours to get to know your professors even if you are taking classes that are asynchronous online. Interestingly, I have four classes with a total of 125 students, no teaching or research assistant, and no administrative assistant. I have given all students my cell phone number and have encouraged students to make appointments with me for phone calls. How many do you think have taken me up on it in the past three weeks since school started? Exactly one, and she is a much older returning student.
Yet I have heard from many former students who have sought me out for advice on very complicated life issues. They have learned that I know of good resources, can connect them to peers in similar circumstances, have set them up with new friends, have connected them to internships and jobs, and that I even have some good advice! Freshmen and other students who have not sought out faculty are missing out on some of the best opportunities for connection that both counter loneliness and pave the way for a more fruitful, productive college experience and future.
And yes, I have purposely chosen the phone because it is also good practice for young people to talk on the phone with older adults. And we can walk and talk which is good for everyone!
4. When your professors suggest interesting events or things that relate to the class, try to attend. It’s not like there are that many scheduling conflicts right now. I published a new book—a memoir—in February and just participated in a virtual book event with a fabulous independent bookstore. I suggested to students that they attend because the book is a sociological memoir and they are enrolled in sociology with me, and because it is an unusual, intimate, and interesting way to get to know a professor—and there are so few social gatherings on campus that are offering rich, intellectual, co-curricular connection. How many students do you think showed up? Three.
So, when your student complains that there is nothing available it is also worth considering what they are not taking advantage of. Don’t believe everything they say or send as a screenshot. Students need to cultivate curiosity!
5. Classes and study spaces have always been a fabulous way for students to initially meet and then become social through group work. This natural byproduct of in-person classes is not happening when classes are online, and in reality, they are barely happening when the classes are in-person given all the social engineering of the classroom spaces and hallways and various barriers. Students can be well-served to use an online learning management system like Blackboard or Canvas to access class rosters and reach out to peers via e-mail.
6. Whenever possible and when not in a situation of quarantine or isolation, students should try to venture outside as the rhythms of the natural world are healing and helpful. Many campuses have nearby walking and biking paths, arboretums, and gardens.
7. If permitted in the residence hall, keep your door open when you are in your room so people can stop in, say hi, and hang out. If you’re busy studying, you can invite someone in to study with you or suggest meeting up for dinner later on. And go knock on others’ doors and introduce yourself.
8. This is a good time to cultivate new hobbies and passions and to try things you always wanted to.
9. It is harder to find and to create room for spontaneity, and yet we need this more than ever right now.
10. Consider seeking help at the counseling center; most are offering virtual sessions and phone appointments.
11. Seek out events like outdoor yoga, outdoor movie screenings, and musical performances that are holding drive-in concerts outside. Or, gather with a few people and watch a virtual concert with one of your favorite musicians.
12. As students juggle all that is required of them, they benefit from cultivating habits of good self-care, including getting adequate rest, maintaining a healthy diet, getting vigorous exercise, and taking part in stress-reducing activities like mindful meditation and yoga. Deep reflection assists in any decision-making process and helps with cultivating stillness, self-reliance, presence, and peace of mind, which all enhance the joys of solitude.
13. Do something crazy! Commit to turning off your phone at least an hour every day. The immediate gratification you get from a cell phone distorts your ability to find important answers from within. Experience the world outside your phone.
14. Importantly, consider the difference between loneliness and solitude, keeping in mind that appreciating solitude is a life skill well worth cultivating now.
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