Student protest on the Vismarkt in March

The expert Lonely students #5

‘A general approach usually doesn’t work’

Student protest on the Vismarkt in March
You should ask the people around you if they’ve ever felt lonely, and keep asking questions. Maaike Verhagen says the responsibility to solve loneliness lies with society as a whole.
By Lydwine Huizinga
13 April om 16:10 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 April 2021
om 9:43 uur.
April 13 at 16:10 PM.
Last modified on April 14, 2021
at 9:43 AM.

She may be an expert on the subject, but Maaike Verhagen still has to think about how to exactly describe what being lonely feels like. ‘I can tell you the scientific definition, no problem. But describing the feeling of loneliness is much more difficult’, she says. ‘I’m coming up with empty, listless, down, tense. People experience loneliness differently, but it’s always an unpleasant feeling that is caused by insufficient or unsatisfactory social contact.’  

Loneliness isn’t always problematic, says Verhagen, who works as an associate professor of orthopedagogics at Radboud University in Nijmegen and studies loneliness among adolescents. ‘It can be a useful feeling that motivates people to take action by reaching out to their environment or trying to make new friends.’ 

However, it becomes an issue when people are no longer able to banish the negative feelings on their own. ‘When people reject your attempts at friendship, it’s easy to enter a downward spiral’, she explains. ‘You might not be inclined to try again, genuinely making it harder to make contact with other people.’

Little old man

For most people, the term loneliness conjures up an image of a little old man staring out the window. Government campaigns about the lonely elderly only confirm this idea. But Verhagen says loneliness is a problem that many young people face, too. ‘They are leaving their parents to go study and are met with new challenges. That can make them feel lonely.’ 

Being part of a group increased your chance of survival

Verhagen has recently become an advisor to a committee at the Ministry of Health that’s in charge of the loneliness campaigns. She hopes the ads will be changed to also apply to young people, showing them that it’s okay to be lonely and that they don’t need to hide it. ‘Craving social interaction is a natural desire’, she emphasises. ‘People are social animals. In prehistoric times, being part of a group increased your chance of survival.’

Social media

Mobile phones and social media are often blamed for young people’s loneliness. But Verhagen says it’s not that simple. ‘Research has shown that the way people use their phone is important. When young people use social media for interactions, sharing fun experiences, or to find support, it can be a really positive thing.’  

As long as social media supports your social life offline, it doesn’t have to have a negative effect. It’s different, however, if you only have online friends. ‘But this, too, varies per person. People who have a hard time connecting might find online friends really valuable.’

The actual reasons that young people become lonely vary, says Verhagen. ‘Some young people are lonely due to social exclusion. They literally don’t interact with people, perhaps because they’re disabled or because they’ve been bullied. Others may not have great social skills, making it hard for them to interact with people. There are also young people who feel like they’re worth less than other people, or who have a negative view of the world.’


Because the reasons for loneliness vary so much, it’s difficult to come up with a single solution. ‘A general approach where you set up people to interact doesn’t always work’, says Verhagen. ‘A weekly visit without any real connection won’t help.’ 

Shared interests increase the chance of friendship

Verhagen says the Buddy-to-Buddy project, set up by the Erasmus Student Network, which matches students based on things they have in common, is an example of a useful initiative. ‘Shared interests increase the chance of a good, qualitative friendship.’

If you want to do something about your loneliness, says Verhagen, you first have to recognise and acknowledge that you are lonely. ‘Even if you don’t understand why. Talk to people about where you think your loneliness might come from. Only then can you figure out what to do about it. It’s important that you feel like people are listening to you and supporting you.’ 

She recommends people find out what they’re interested in. ‘Students spend a lot of time at home. Try to figure out what enthuses you. Try new things, activate yourself. Do you enjoy chess? Find a chess club to join, or an online chess forum.’ This won’t instantly cure your loneliness, but it does increase your chances of social interaction. ‘Withdrawing from society is never a good idea.’

Ask questions

But the lonely people aren’t the only ones responsible for solving their issue, says Verhagen. ‘It’s really important that society as a whole becomes more aware of lonely people around them. We should just ask people how they’re doing in terms of loneliness. And don’t be afraid to keep asking questions: What happens when you feel lonely? Is it because you’re lacking a network? What do you need? Is there something I can help you with?’ 

General practitioners and student psychologists can also play a significant role. They need to acknowledge loneliness and ask their patients about it, she says. Loneliness may not be an actual illness, but it can lead to a host of other symptoms, like depression, anxiety, or physical ailments. 

Support services at universities should also be alert. ‘Tell students that loneliness is a good reason to contact them, just like ADHD, depression, stress, and burn-out are. Clearly communicate this. It will lower the threshold and make it easier for people to talk about it.’