Your daughter, a freshman in college, is home for Thanksgiving. After dinner, you and she sit at the kitchen table, sipping hot chocolate and chatting about school. She says she is getting all As. She should look happy, but she looks so sad. “Is anything wrong?” you ask her. “I just feel really lonely,” she says, tears streaming down her face.
Today’s freshmen can have a tough time adjusting to college life. Gone are the days when people would prop open the doors to their dorm rooms and have long conversations into the night. Behind closed doors, students are endlessly texting. Many have online classes and are not seeing each other in the classroom. In fact, studies show college students have decreasing face-to–face contact and more time spent on social media.
Loneliness is becoming a common phenomenon on college campuses. One of fourstudents felt very lonely in the previous two weeks and almost two thirds felt very lonely at some point in the last year. It’s strange to think that you could feel lonely on a campus of five hundred or five thousand students, but it happens all the time.
What is loneliness? It is the feeling that your social needs are not being met. Most people need at least one or two close friends to feel supported. A circle of casual friends and acquaintances can also strengthen that sense of social connection. Freshman year can be a lonely time, especially if friendships haven’t gelled. Sophomore and junior year can also be lonely if friend groups break apart.
How concerned should you be about your child’s loneliness? I met one father who was not concerned at all. “I sent my son to school to get good grades, not to socialize,” he said. I told him that making friends and getting good grades are interconnected. In fact, studies show that a sense of social belonging on campus improves grades.
Moreover, loneliness is extremely bad for your health. Even in young adults, loneliness can decrease immunity and increase the risk of high blood pressure. Loneliness at all ages raises mortality rates by as much as 30 percent.
Loneliness is also hazardous to your college student’s mental health. It increases the risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. As a psychiatrist, I always ask my patients about their level of social support. I encourage them to make their social connections stronger.
So if your college student comes to you overwhelmed by loneliness, what can you do to help? Your support is critical to her wellness. Keep in touch with her on a regular basis by text, phone, or visits. But also encourage her to improve her social health on campus. She can do this by increasing social interactions, strengthening social support, and improving social skills.
Here are a few suggestions you can give your child.
1. Join one or two clubs to increase social interactions. I’ve seen students bond over intramural sports, animal rescue shelters, and weekend wilderness retreats. Many colleges have advisors who will sit with you and help you identify an activity you would enjoy.
2. Get to know a few students better. Ask a friend out to lunch. Study with a friend at the library. Make a plan to see a campus movie or play.
3. Go visit your advisor or professor during office hours. Getting to know a professor in your field can increase your sense of belonging on campus.
4. Practice small talk. Small talk has been shown to improve one’s mood, and it’s a great way for a shy person to improve social skills. Respond with a comment when a cashier at a Starbucks or a supermarket greets you. Get to class early and chat with the person sitting next to you about an assignment.
“No man is an island entire of itself,” wrote John Donne. Poets recognized the power of social connection long before science proved its health benefits. If your child is lonely, encourage her to take two or three concrete actions to improve her social health. Be there as a cheerleader if she encounters roadblocks or rejection. When she finds her place in the campus community, you will feel relief and joy.