The Best Years of Our Lives?

The loneliness epidemic sweeping through college campuses.

Posted Oct 25, 2018

This month, we have a guest blogger—former UnLonely Project intern Evan Horowitz. Upon entering college, Evan experienced firsthand the ways in which social isolation can creep into the lives of students. You can read more of his personal story here. In this post, Evan not only dives deep into loneliness and social isolation on college campuses, but explores potential solutions on how we can get “unlonely.”

There’s an epidemic creeping into dorm rooms and classrooms on college campuses across America. That epidemic is loneliness—and with it often comes a disturbing sense of disconnection and disorientation. This epidemic is a kind of tradition, too, and one that hinders students in reaching their academic potential, not to mention a sense of personal well-being. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that college students struggle with the burden of loneliness—ask any student or recent grad. Now there is scientific evidence as well. 

A 2014 review of the existing literature on collegiate loneliness suggested that the many stressors of college, especially for students in their first year, produce feelings of helplessness and lack of control. Many students lack the tools to take on difficult assignments or unfamiliar social situations, and that stress manifests as loneliness: the sense that they are isolated and alone, uniquely unable to take on the challenges of college life.

Universities may seem an unlikely place for loneliness to lurk, built, as they are, on communities of peers working and living together. Those assumptions of camaraderie and collegiality only further isolate lonely individuals and prevent conversation about the issue. In fact, erasing that stigma around loneliness is the first step towards addressing it. That begins with the simple recognition that a significant number of college students are lonely. Earlier this year, a 20,000-person survey by Cigna found that people 18-22 years old were the loneliest population in the United States. On a scale of 20-88, college-age participants rated 48—higher than both the national average of 44, and individuals 72 and older, who rated a 39. 

So why are our youngest “almost-adult” generations so lonely? A 2017 study led by University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine scientists found that the more time a young person spends on social media, the more likely they are to experience loneliness and social isolation. And 88 percent of American 18-to-29-year-olds are active on social media, according to the latest findings from Pew Research. It’s quite possible that the very platforms designed to create online communities have become drivers of disconnection in the “real world.” 

Some groups of students are particularly at risk for loneliness, causing those students to fare more poorly in the classroom than their less lonely peers. A 2005 study presented evidence that college students with learning disabilities, especially women, experience a “heightened degree” of social isolation and feelings of loneliness. This correlates with lower academic achievement because fears of social stigmatization prevent these students from thorough engagement in their coursework. Furthermore, and to the researchers’ surprise, they found that female college students, with or without learning disabilities, were far more likely to experience social isolation and feel lonely, negatively impacting academic performance, than their male counterparts. That is, because women felt lonelier than the men in their classes, they actually did worse academically. Considering that academic performance is linked to opportunities after graduation, this achievement gap between lonely and engaged students is of serious consequence, and cannot be ignored if we want students to perform at their highest achievable level. 

Even putting aside concerns about academic underachievement, the health risks associated with loneliness in students demand that we take measures to address it. A 2015 meta-analysis by a national body of social work researchers indicated that social isolation among young adults is understudied and underreported, but presents a pernicious public health risk. They indicate that making meaningful social connections, especially at college age and younger, “inform one’s ability to form and maintain strong relationships…[which] are particularly important to mental health and preventing behavioral problems.” More specifically, the researchers cite social isolation in young people as presenting an “increased risk of depressive symptoms, suicide attempts, and low self-esteem.” The review emphasizes that reducing feelings of loneliness in young adults requires a different approach than in older adults.

What then can we do to provide college students access to inclusion? What can we do to help isolated students, burdened with social, academic, and health disadvantages, become less lonely? There is a growing body of scientific research that creative arts expression can help significantly reduce loneliness and its effects, especially in environments such as college campuses that are high-pressure and competitive. A study published by Iranian researchers in 2015 found that adolescents who engaged with painting had significantly reduced feelings of loneliness and emotional disorder, and actually performed better in academic settings. The arts can also be a catalyst for conversation, inviting people to share personal thoughts and feelings with others in response to a shared arts engagement experience like a play or concert.

A plan to reduce loneliness on campus, then, could mean that we encourage college students to take courses in art or drama or creative writing. Colleges and universities invest many resources into the health and well-being of students, promoting visits to healthcare services on campuses, exercise, eating well, and sleeping enough. Using creative expression and related programming around it to combat loneliness and depression should be part of an integrated approach to achieving better student health.

At Chicago’s School of the Art Institute (SAIC), art therapy has become a cornerstone of their Wellness Center’s offerings. In a recent creative session featured on The Today Show, Wellness Center Executive Director Joseph Behen asked students to think of someone they wanted to support and create art for that person. “Magic then happened,” Behen told the Chicago Tribune. Students were able to connect, to feel a part of a community. In sharing their stories through art, they became “un-lonely.” 

For students for whom the word “loneliness” is weighted with embarrassment or shame, creative outlets like SAIC’s Wellness Center program can also help alleviate the stigma of simply saying, “I’m lonely.” Whether it’s through poetry, painting, dancing, writing a letter or singing a song, students can find a safe space in art, away from social media and academic hurdles and the pressure to succeed. The epidemic of loneliness on college campuses accelerates when burdened students are unable to ask for help. For many, expressing themselves creatively can be the catalyst that bridges that gap. 

Evan Horowitz is an actor and director currently pursuing his MFA at Brown University/Trinity Rep in Providence, RI