UKrant survey 91 percent of students are lonely
You’re not alone
Over the next few weeks, UKrant will be focusing on the topic of loneliness among students, in the form of articles, videos and the unique matching project Friend-o-matic, organised by UKrant and HanzeMag.
Nora, twenty-three years old, is walking through the grey and rainy Noorderplantsoen. It’s fairly quiet. There’s the odd cyclist, and occasionally a jogger passes her by. Nora enjoys the cold weather. It’s the summer she fears: ‘I don’t like seeing all those students in the sun, talking to each other.’ She looks around. ‘It makes me feel lonelier than ever.’
In September, Nora started a pre-master in marketing at the UG. Originally from Vietnam, she’s lived in many different countries, and spent six months studying in Groningen back in 2017. She’d had a positive experience then and was hoping for the same now.
But things didn’t work out that way. Introduction events were cancelled, any place where one could meet people was closed, and she’s never met any of her classmates. Nora spends her days in front of a screen, either studying or working. When she looks out the window, all she sees are happy students everywhere. ‘Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one with problems.’
But she isn’t.
A survey by UKrant and HanzeMag among more than 1200 students in Groningen showed that loneliness is an even bigger problem than previously thought. Of the 995 UG students who filled out the survey, 11.7 percent said they ‘always’ feel lonely and 46 percent regularly feel lonely. 33.2 percent said they occasionally feel lonely and only 9.1 percent indicated they never felt this way.
53 percent said they wished they had more friends, and 54.4 percent have trouble making friends. Interestingly enough, the results of the HanzeMag survey among Hanze University of Appplied Sciences students are very close to those from the UKrant survey.
The numbers are high; higher even than the ones UG psychologist Maaike Engels uses. ‘40 to 70 percent of young people say they feel lonely sometimes’, she says. ‘And 3 to 10 percent are chronically lonely.’ Loneliness, she explains, can be very painful. ‘No one enjoys feeling lonely. You feel disconnected from people, like you’re missing out on something in your relationship with them.’
I wish I had more close friends
Many young people, and especially students, are increasingly often suffering from loneliness. It’s not entirely surprising, says social psychologist Luzia Heu, who studies loneliness. ‘Because of their age, young people are at risk of feeling lonely. Research shows that they are just as prone to loneliness as old people are, even though we’re much more familiar with the image of lonely old people.’
I find it hard to connect to other students
There are other factors at play for students, says Heu. ‘They often move to a completely new environment when they start studying. They must integrate and adapt to a new context. This increases the risk of feelings of loneliness.’
‘During my first year, I felt completely lost at times’, confirms 21-year-old psychology student Laura Keijzer. ‘I was eager to expand my social circle, but I was insecure. I wasn’t sure who I was or what I wanted.’ Laura often found herself alone in her room at night, wishing she had something to do. ‘But I didn’t know who to ask. It made me feel bad. I had expected so much more from my time as a student.’
She saw others around her having a great time. ‘It felt like everyone was too busy to meet up with me.’ She also realised how difficult it was to have a social life without joining a student organisation. ‘You just end up in this black hole. I think this is especially true for a lot of first-years right now.’
It’s interesting to note that student associations have seen a dramatic increase in membership this year. In fact, they’ve had to turn people away. ‘I think the first-years are having a particularly hard year. They’ve had so few opportunities’, says Laura.
The covid-19 pandemic has made it harder for me to make contact with others
The survey also shows how much first-year students are struggling. 17.3 percent of them feel lonely all the time, as opposed to older students (9.5 percent). Joining a student association appears to help a little. 44 percent of association members say they regularly feel lonely, with 47.3 percent of non-members saying the same.
Notary law student Jochem van der Wal (20) has also noticed that many students, specifically first-years, are struggling with feelings of loneliness. He moved out of his parents’ house this year and into a studio apartment. He is happy in his social life, but he doesn’t always know who to turn to when he’s struggling emotionally. ‘Moments like that are difficult. It feels like someone is pulling you down. When that happens, I take a walk around the block to clear my head.’
When Nora came to Groningen, she moved in with her boyfriend. He’s been living in the city for years and has a good social network. She’s in contact with his friends, but they don’t really feel like they’re her friends, too. ‘I see the special bond they have with each other. They’re always nice to me, but I don’t have that same connection with them.’
With her boyfriend at work in the evenings, Nora spends her time home alone. Sometimes she’ll hear her neighbours having a party, which makes her cry. The loneliness she feels is making her increasingly insecure. ‘The lack of social interaction is making it more and more difficult for me to maintain contact with people. I often regret not just asking people to get a drink.’
Added to that are her feelings of guilt. ‘I know there are international students who are having a much worse time than I am. At least I have a boyfriend. What right do I have to feel like this?’
Lonely or alone
‘There’s a big difference between being alone and feeling lonely’, Heu explains. ‘People tend to conflate the two. But it’s entirely possible to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people.’
I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes feel lonely
This is how Laura felt for a long time. She actively participated in committee work for her study association and had plenty of people around her, but she never felt quite connected to them. ‘There wasn’t anyone who really shared my interests.’
Nora has a hard time talking about her feelings with people. Her friends back in Vietnam lead completely different lives and don’t understand her. She’s afraid to talk to her parents. ‘I don’t want them to know that I’m sad. They can’t do anything for me from where they are, anyway.’
Heu knows how difficult it can be for people to talk about loneliness. ‘The concept of loneliness suggests you’ve done something wrong in your social life. Admitting you’re lonely feels like admitting failure.’ Engels confirms this. ‘It’s a taboo subject. No one likes admitting they’re lonely.’
Loneliness is even more of a charged subject among students: 40 percent of respondents report feeling ashamed. ‘We expect students to all have an active social life, surrounded by others and having the time of their lives’, says Heu. Engels: ‘The term loneliness conjures up images of elderly people alone in their room, but young people experience it as well.’
Jochem knows how difficult it is to talk about. ‘It’s a very emotional topic. It’s difficult to open up about it.’ Laura thinks it’s a shame people aren’t more open with their feelings, ‘because I don’t know many students who never feel lonely’.
Despite the taboo on loneliness, the past few years have seen an increase in research on the subject. This is because we are becoming more aware of its consequences. ‘People who don’t have any interaction with other people suffer long-term consequences’, Heu explains.
Loneliness can lead to various mental issues, such as depression, anxiety, and drug use, and lonely people are more like to commit suicide. There are also physical symptoms, ranging from problems sleeping and weight gain to a weakened immune system and an increased chance of cardiovascular disease.
What do the students who filled out the UKrant survey think might solve their loneliness?
‘For me, death…’ one student wrote.
‘HUMAN CONTACT’, another one wrote.
‘At this point? Anything’, said a third one.
There is apparently no universal answer. Which is exactly why it’s such a difficult problem to solve.
Laura decided to take action herself. She approached a large Instagram account and placed an ad, looking for people with shared interests. In no time, she got dozens of responses. She created a WhatsApp group chat and now has a new group of friends. She’s glad she decided to be open about her issue. ‘I think being open about your problems is part of the solution.’
But what works for one person might not work for others. Nora is too scared to do anything like what Laura did. ‘I envy the people who are open about their problems, but I could never do it myself. I’d just worry about being a burden to people.’
Engels knows that people experience loneliness differently. ‘Because there are so many different reasons, it’s difficult to come up with a single solution. What works for one person might be completely wrong for someone else.’ Heu knows this, too. ‘Loneliness is an extremely diverse problem. We have to be looking for solutions that match the specific causes.’
Talk about it
They do have some general tips, though. Talking about your feelings with people can help. ‘It can also help to distract yourself with things you enjoy’, says Heu. ‘Be open about it to the people close to you. It can help to hear you’re not the only one.’
Engels thinks part of the solution lies in breaking the taboo. ‘We have to be able to talk openly about the issue. It might help to gather information, to read and hear about it from other people with the same experience. We have to help each other get over that hurdle.’
Or, as one of the students suggested as a solution: ‘Knowing you are not alone.’
Meet new people with our Friend-o-matic pub quiz
No, you’re not alone. But since it can be difficult and scary to make new friends, UKrant and HanzeMag are introducing the Friend-o-matic. It’s a relaxed way to meet people who are also looking for new friends.
How does it work? Anyone who’s looking for new friends can sign up. We’ll ask you a few questions about yourself and match you with three other students, based on your shared interests. Forming a team, you’ll participate in the Friend-o-matic pub quiz on April 1, 2021 (no, we promise it’s not a joke!). You can sign up from 16 to 26 March, after which you’ll get an email with information about your team and the plans for the evening.
What’s next? Obviously, we hope outdoor cafés open back up soon, or that you can get together at the Noorderplantsoen and have each other over for dinner. We’ll be sending you some tips and suggestions for things to do together so you can explore any burgeoning friendships.
We’ll see you on April 1!