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Loneliness at university

Almost one in four students are lonely most or all of the time, according to new research.

Ben Carroll shares his experiences of loneliness at university.

Ben, 22, is a graduate from London. He experienced loneliness in his first term at Bristol University. After a conversation with friends from home, Ben realised that he wasn't alone in feeling isolated. He talks about some of the issues students face and what people can do to form new friendships and make the most of their university experience. 


For a young person, the early days of uni are the most uprooted you can feel. I’ve moved schools but they were natural life stages and everyone else was doing it. Going to uni is another life stage but it’s completely different. I’d lived in London my whole life and suddenly I was away from my family, the friends I’d grown up with and all the places I knew. 


What makes it worse is that there are a lot of people on social media saying they’re making all these new friends and are out having the time of their lives. You see it happening, but you don’t feel it happening. You’re trying to get the measure of a place, meet people, fit in: there’s so much going on at once. You also lose all your structure - I had nine hours a week where I had to be in for lectures but that was it. Some people spent most of their time in their rooms. I was trying to meet people but I’d go back to my room at the end of the day and feel like I’d made no progress and I wasn’t clicking with people. You don’t want to tell your family how you’re feeling because they think it’s amazing you’ve gone off to university, and you also don’t really want to tell your friends so you post sanitised versions of your life online instead. 


It took going back home for Christmas for things to start changing. I talked to my friends who were also at uni and there was mutual understanding that everyone was feeling the same way, that it wasn’t just me. Sometimes you have to hear it to believe it and speak it into existence. 


Talking to my friends broke the spell of loneliness and after that things started clicking into place. I realised that uni life wasn’t how it was portrayed in stories and movies. Looking back now, I had an amazing time and made some great friends but it wasn’t this rose-tinted experience. 


You have to find like-minded people, it might require a bit of a push and it doesn’t feel very nice at times but that’s the way you find your people. If you tell someone how you’re feeling and they react badly, you know that person isn’t for you. But if you don’t ask, you don’t know. If someone is supportive and says ‘I feel the same, let’s go for a coffee,’ that could be the start of a real friendship. Opening up makes you feel vulnerable but you build connections that way. 


I would also say that if someone isn’t very supportive, just roll with it. It doesn’t have to impact your relationship with them - some people are good for a night out and other friends will be your rock. You can have different friends for different reasons and the sooner you know who people are you can build a connection with them. There is more awareness around mental health now and that you’re not weird for feeling a certain way  – we can all have difficult times. If you’re struggling with loneliness at university, look to your peer group. Everyone is in the same boat and going through some sort of turmoil, whether they’re cut out for the course or not, making friends, or their partner is in a different city. You just have to find your people, even if it’s just messaging someone and checking in with something like: ‘It’s been a while mate, hope you’re alright, give me a shout if there’s anything you need.’ It’s finding your level with it. 

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