Two thirds of students have felt loneliness at uni. These are their stories

‘I barely went out in Freshers’ Week and so missed most of getting to know people’

When Katie started at uni, she socialised a bit with her housemates but didn’t massively get on with them. By the fourth week of term they were all hanging out without her, and she never really found out why. Katie, who asked for her name to be changed, joined societies and would go along to meetings, but didn’t feel like she knew anyone well enough to go to any socials. “I would come home and sit on my bed with a movie and knit literally every single night – I have a blanket to prove for it!”, she says. “I was just very isolated.”

But just like Katie, almost two thirds of students say they have experienced loneliness at university. Over 4,000 students at more than 30 unis around the UK took The Tab’s Student Mental Health Survey, and 62.5 per cent said they have experienced loneliness at university.

For those students who reported they have ever suffered from a mental health illness, the proportion was even higher – 90 per cent. You Matter is The Tab’s annual campaign dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis.

At some universities, students reported being far more lonely than others. Lancaster was the loneliest university, with 70 per cent of students reporting feeling it, followed by Cardiff (69 per cent) and Exeter (almost 68 per cent). At the other end of the scale, students at Durham, Oxford Brookes, and Leeds all reported the least amounts of loneliness – but still, at every single uni over half of students reported feeling lonely.

This is the full breakdown of how many students reported feeling loneliness at each uni. We have only included individual unis if over 100 of their students responded to The Tab’s Student Mental Health Survey – students from all other universities have been grouped together:

‘There was a massive drinking culture in Freshers’ Week’

19-year-old Katie doesn’t drink, and says this “absolutely” made things harder at the start of uni, especially with the “massive drinking culture” of Freshers’ Week. “At the start of first year I felt really awkward and conspicuous”, she says. “It took me longer than most to make friends – I’m not a clubber, so I barely went out in Freshers’ Week and so missed most of that ‘getting to know people’ kinda thing. I missed out on meeting people and socialising because I didn’t have that in common.”

She says lockdowns had really affected her, and by the time she started uni in autumn 2021 it was still “a very strange time”. They had Covid scares in Freshers’ Week, and were wearing masks everywhere. She says not being able to see people’s faces “made communication really hard and getting to know people awkward”, and even though her classes were in-person it was “hard to get to know people after so long on Zoom”.

Stock image before edits via Zhivko Minkov/Unsplash

By the final term of first year, Katie was working on practical projects as part of her degree: “I finally felt like I’d got to know people who I liked and who liked me. I’ve got a really strong friendship group now who I get on really well with.”

Now she’s in second year with a great group of mates and gets on well with her housemates. “I still get lonely, even now in second year with amazing friends and living with people I really like, but it’s easier to message someone and ask if they want to hang out because I actually know them.

“I’m just glad I’ve got friends who don’t mind that I don’t drink and that don’t mind when I go home early. They’re really chill and accepting about everything and I’m glad I didn’t make friends who weren’t okay with it all in the end”, she says. “I didn’t miss out on anything.”

‘Daunting and exhausting’

“For me, as an autistic person, the conventional ways of socialising for university students (i.e. pub socials) are quite daunting and exhausting,” UCL student Suzanna says. “Which often means I feel more isolated.”

They say feelings of loneliness are “an especially common experience” amongst disabled students. “We might be unable to attend and connect with others at in-person lectures and events for health or other disability-related reasons”, she says.

Suzanna says there should be more accessible ways for students to socialise, such as online events or ones in more sensory-friendly environments, as well as the classic ways that are available now. She says the only regular events that cater to disabled students “are from societies actually run by disabled students, but there should “definitely” be more from wider societies and groups. “I think we should be mindful that it’s not enough to only offer accessible events on one-off occasions”, they say.

“Connection is important for everyone to feel less lonely, and it’s a bit unfair for some students to have less opportunities to connect.”

‘Connection is important for everyone to feel less lonely’, Suzanna says

‘It’s just you, your thoughts and a bunch of strangers’

Like Katie, 20-year-old Warwick student Lia struggled when she moved into halls. “My first year flat was not a movie-esque instant friendship story”, she says, “I struggled to find my place and purpose at uni”. Struggling with moving to a new city, living away from home and adapting to a new life at university left her feeling isolated and took a toll on her mental health.

“You’re not regularly surrounded by people who know you”, she says. “It’s just you, your thoughts and a bunch of strangers.” As her first year went on things improved, and a year later Lia says she now has a positive group of friends, but the feelings of loneliness are still there.

“The sad thing is that most people won’t notice, especially when you’re the one people go to for support, which leaves you with a spiral of thoughts questioning whether your friends actually know you, whether this feeling will last forever and if you can trust opening up to people again. I’ve come to accept that I’ll have to deal with these feelings for the rest of my life, I’d love to give a happy ending, but I’ve not quite reached that yet, and that’s okay, it all takes time.”

‘Loneliness has been shown to be the single greatest predictor of mental distress among university students’

A spokesperson from the student mental health charity Student Minds said: “According to research from June 2022, almost one in four university students feel lonely most or all of the time. This suggests to us that loneliness is a very common part of the student experience, and it is understandable to struggle if you are feeling lonely at university. According to our University Mental Health Charter, loneliness has been shown to be the single greatest predictor of mental distress among university students, and has a negative impact on cognitive function, immunity, mood, and academic performance. With all this in mind, it is imperative that universities, students’ unions, support services, and third sector partners come together to tackle student loneliness as an issue of the utmost importance.

“If you are a student experiencing loneliness, or are struggling with your mental health, Student Space is here to help. Student Space is a free, confidential, 24/7 mental health support service, available online. It includes a range of support options such as texting, webchat or email, educational articles, webinars, and a directory of support local to you.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, Calm (Campaign against living miserably) on 0800 58 58 58, and Student Minds online here. You matter.

The Tab’s You Matter campaign is dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

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Stock featured image before edits via Jornada Produtora/Unsplash