Going away to college is a major milestone — the experience can be unlike any other we go through in life. The transition from high school to university, from childhood home to dorm room, is often filled with excitement and anticipation. However, it can also be a time of fear and loneliness for many students.
Even some of the most social young adults you know might feel lonely in college — it’s more common than people tend to think. Social connections that, for some, have been life-long can suddenly break, as students make new homes on campuses across the country. Leaving behind family, friends, and familiarity can be overwhelming, to say the least.
Even though loneliness in college is challenging, there are ways to get through it. We’re exploring why so many college students are lonely and what contributes to the negative feelings of isolation. We’re also uncovering the mental health impact and sharing tips on how to overcome loneliness.
Is it Normal to Feel Lonely in College?
If you are wondering why you feel so lonely, you are not alone. It’s normal to feel lonely in college.
The reality is the college experience includes bouts of loneliness for most students. A recent study found that as many as 87% of Gen Z adults in college said that their college life experience is a big source of stress in their lives, which can cause feelings of loneliness.
Another survey conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA) – National College Health Assessment (NCHA) found that more than 60% of students reported feeling “very lonely” in college over the last year.
A German study in 2018 also found that nearly a third (32.4%) of students at their university felt moderate social or emotional loneliness.
Why is College So Lonely?
College is full of new opportunities that can be exhilarating. That said, college life can also lead to isolation due to several factors, like leaving the comfort of a childhood home, experiencing new or enhanced social anxiety, or being in a new environment for the first time.
Being away from home
Moving away from home is a big life transition. Stepping into unfamiliar territory can be stressful and require an adjustment period. Being far away from family and high school friends and trying to get used to a new environment can lead young students down a path of loneliness.
Leaving behind a romantic relationship
First love is often experienced during the high school years. Leaving for college can be difficult on a romantic relationship, whether it means breaking up or trying to manage a new life, new school, new demands, and a long-distance relationship. Missing a partner (who also might have been a best friend) can be the culprit of near-unbearable loneliness for some students as they try to navigate a new social life and circle of friends.
Challenges of making friends in a new environment
Even the most confident teenager might find it challenging to make new bonds and connections at the beginning of college. Despite an abundance of social opportunities, the rigorous expectations that come with moving from high school coursework to challenging collegiate studies might take away from having the time or energy to go out and make new friends.
Social pressure is inherent in university life. After spending decades watching movies and reading books that make it seem so easy to find new friends in college, the reality can be more painful. Some students might find their social circle quickly, but for those who don’t, the feelings of loneliness can be intense.
Most students find that academic stress ramps up in college. Even extremely bright scholars can discover they’re suddenly more challenged than they were in high school. Stress can lead to anxiety and depression, which can hamper energy or desire to go out and make friends.
Balancing daily responsibilities
It can be challenging for any 18-year-old to figure out how to balance the demands of essential daily duties. Without mom or dad to remind them to start laundry or pack food for a long day, they might struggle to get into a routine that leaves time for socializing and making friends. While these life lessons are necessary, they can be difficult and add to feelings of loneliness.
Lack of support system
It’s not uncommon for students to struggle with not having a support system in college. Feeling alone and unsupported can be hard for some students, especially if they are also experiencing homesickness. Not having the much-needed support they’re used to can lead to lonely days.
College offers newfound independence, but with it comes demanding routines that can be difficult for some students to get used to. Suddenly, students need to find time and learn how to do things like manage their finances, cook or pick up meals, do laundry, get enough sleep, and keep up with their studies. Their new routine can be exhausting and make finding meaningful connections even harder.
Anxiety and depression
Rates of anxiety and depression among college-age students are higher than ever, according to the latest research. A study of nearly 100,000 U.S. college students found that 37% have an anxiety disorder and 44% have symptoms of depression.
Loneliness often accompanies both these mental health conditions. It can be daunting to try to make friends when struggling with the symptoms depression or anxiety can cause.
The Mental Health Impact
Navigating the college experience can be confusing for anyone dealing with loneliness. In many cases, it can impact a college student’s mental health. Some research suggests that loneliness is a risk factor for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD).
There’s a direct link between loneliness and symptoms of depression. Young adults who feel lonely for prolonged periods can see increased depressive symptoms over time. The correlation exists because isolation can trigger negative thought patterns, further intensifying feelings of loneliness.
Anxiety also has a connection to loneliness. Social anxiety in college is prevalent, and the added stress and newness can exacerbate these fears and feelings, making students even more lonely.
“It’s important to remember that everyone feels lonely at some point during college, and while it can feel overwhelming, it is manageable. Loneliness can make people feel more anxious or depressed if it’s not addressed, especially since it can seem like you’re the only one experiencing this feeling. Being able to acknowledge feelings of loneliness and taking steps toward addressing them can create change.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
How to Cope with Loneliness in College
College is about more than just getting an education. It’s a time for self-realization and interpersonal relationship growth. For students who feel intense loneliness, learning effective coping strategies is critical. Here’s how to deal with loneliness as you navigate college.
Recognize what you’re feeling
Recognizing your feelings is the first step toward overcoming loneliness. It’s common to feel lonely after being thrust into a new environment, but acknowledging those feelings and learning to seek solutions and make changes can empower a person.
Change your mindset
Mindset significantly influences our perception of the situations around us. If loneliness is connected to a student’s dorm room, changing their perspective about solitude might help. It can be an opportunity for introspection rather than isolation.
If that doesn’t help, sometimes changing surroundings can. Maybe finding a spot outside to read, going to the campus library, or sitting in a coffee shop can help lift the sense of loneliness.
Join clubs and extracurricular activities
Getting involved and being active on campus can help combat loneliness for many students. Involvement creates avenues to meet others who share similar interests.
- Join clubs: Make new friends and interact with other students who share interests and passions.
- Develop social skills: Participate in group activities that foster the development of interpersonal skills.
- Cultural exchange: Join clubs or groups that promote cultural exchange to learn about diverse cultures and traditions while meeting people and broadening horizons.
Leaving home doesn’t mean cutting off contact. Maintaining regular contact with loved ones back home can alleviate isolation as students learn to adapt to their new life and surroundings. A familiar voice can do wonders in reducing homesickness.
Practice being comfortable by yourself
Learning to be alone and comfortable is a life-long skill that everyone should develop. Practice going to the movies or eating alone. It will become easier in time, perhaps even to the point that it’s enjoyable.
Reconnect with old friends from high school
Reconnecting with friends from high school (or middle or elementary school) can offer a sense of familiarity that might help ease loneliness. Thanks to technology and social media, it’s easier than ever to keep in touch with people from the past.
Get professional help
If loneliness progresses or worsens, it might be time to get help. Fortunately, multiple resources on college campuses can help students realize they’re not as isolated as they might think. On-campus and virtual support services can help anyone fight their loneliness.
“Connecting with others in small ways can make a significant difference in feeling lonely. It does not have to be a big step each day. Small steps create change. For example, speaking to someone in class about the assignment or the professor can decrease isolation and loneliness. Joining your roommate for dinner in the dining hall instead of eating in your dorm is another step in finding a connection. The bottom line of any strategy is to acknowledge that you feel lonely so you can address it — ignoring it won’t make it easier or make it go away.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
Find Support During College
Feeling lonely in college is normal, but it can be overcome. With the right tools and knowledge, it’s possible to recognize feelings of loneliness and do something about them.
If you or a college student you know needs help or support dealing with loneliness, Talkspace offers convenient, affordable, accessible options for online therapy. Reach out today to learn how Talkspace can enhance the college experience, making it a time of joy and discovery and offering emotional support that tackles loneliness.
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- Diehl, Katharina, Charlotte Jansen, Kamila Ishchanova, and Jennifer Hilger-Kolb. “Loneliness at Universities: Determinants of Emotional and Social Loneliness among Students.” MDPI, August 29, 2018. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/15/9/1865.
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