8 October 2021

Student loneliness through the pandemic: how, why and where?

As a group whose connections with both people and place have suffered as study moved online in the Covid-19 pandemic, students’ loneliness has grown in severity and visibility.

A student holding a stress ball

Professor Richard Phillips, a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, is working with a team of students to investigate the how, why and where of student loneliness in the pandemic with an aim to find practical attempts to address it in the longer term.      

Loneliness is an increasingly serious concern for individuals and society. Certain social and demographic groups including older people, care workers and those experiencing life transitions are disproportionately affected. 

As a group whose connections with both people and place have suffered as study moved online in the Covid-19 pandemic, students’ loneliness has grown in severity and visibility. 

“As the spaces in which students live and study were fragmented in the midst of the Covid-19  pandemic, normal interactions and relationships were disrupted,” said Professor Phillips. “Students’ connections and identifications with place have weakened at multiple levels and with a depleted feeling of belonging, they’ve been less likely to interact and more likely to experience loneliness.” 

As a lecturer himself, Richard works with students first hand and has seen the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on both the undergraduate and postgraduate students in his care. As such, Richard’s report is co-produced with his students, who have been investigating loneliness as a function of relationships and interactions by interviewing themselves and others.

Complementing the growing body of research about students’ loneliness, “we have tried to conduct research that is not only about but also by and for students,” said Professor Phillips. 

“Our approach brings students to the heart of the research process and dissolves traditional divisions between researchers and participants or beneficiaries,” said Professor Phillips. “The student researchers in this project stood to benefit by gaining skills and - crucially important after a year of online learning and constrained student life - connecting with each other.” 

The project involved eleven student researchers across different years of study, from first year undergraduates to doctoral students, including a mix of genders, ages and courses. Each student researcher then worked with other University students to create the data set. In all, there were 46 students in the sample.

“The Covid-19 crisis brought some of the harder realities of student life into the open. University students feature prominently among the many stories about loneliness under lockdown, reported in news media around the world,” said Professor Phillips.

In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and National Union of Students (NUS) surveyed upwards of 100,000 students to measure the extent and impacts of their loneliness (ONS 2020). Over half of respondents said their mental health declined since the pandemic began and many said they had suffered stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression. 

“Collectively, we agreed that we wanted to investigate relationships and loneliness among university students during Covid-19 times. We wanted to bring students’ voices to understandings of students’ relationships and loneliness, with potential to inform evidence-based loneliness strategies,” Phillips added.

To begin, the team raised three questions: 

1. How have students in higher education experienced loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic and why? 

2. What barriers have made it hard for students to interact and form relationships, driving up loneliness? 

3. What might be done, practically and feasibly, to reduce students’ loneliness? What might be done to remove barriers to their interactions  and support them as they build and maintain relationships? 

According to Phillips and his team of student researchers, findings show that many students felt lonely and isolated. One student said he felt ‘lonely and without friends’, another ‘missed friends she still had to meet’. Another had not seen anyone in her flat for a week, during which she had spoken to just one person, a librarian. 

Others remained tongue-tied, apparently wanting to speak but not sure how, inhibited by the stigma attached to feeling lonely. ‘Loneliness leads me to struggle with my emotions,’ one first-year student confided. But students displayed resilience, finding ways to cope with and mitigate their loneliness. 

Resilience came through in another part of the project, when students were asked to choose an object to represent their experiences of lockdown. This method was developed in partnership with the Science Museum Group, ranging from a shot glass to a tin of yeast. 

One student saved his shot glass as a reminder of Friday nights-in, expressing that ‘it was always fun to have an event to look forward to at the end of the week, even if it was just in our kitchen.’ Another participant chose a yeast tin to represent the mixed emotions he experienced during Covid times. Baking bread, he remembered and mourned his mother, who had encouraged him in the kitchen, and so reached out to housemates, who would eat with him. 

These objects, along with the students’ explanations of their meanings, will form part of the Science Museum’s Covid collection, showing future generations and researchers what it was like to be a student in Covid times. 

Professor Phillips stated that the student researchers hope that their work will make a difference to other students. 

“Their wider community, including other students, also stood to benefit if the findings of their research could be shared and heard by those in positions of authority, such as the student accommodation and wellbeing service providers whose decisions during and after Covid influence students’ chances to interact and build relationships,” he said.

Findings also showed that many students weren’t able to progress through life transitions associated with late adolescence including leaving home, learning social skills, forming sexual relationships and emerging into adulthood.

Those facing bigger changes such as bereavement struggled to process these events and spoke of feeling ‘neither here nor there’ – in limbo. 

“Their coping strategies speak to the efforts of policy makers and practitioners, including those in universities, government, health and wellbeing services, and accommodation services, who are seeking ways to tackle loneliness,” said Professor Phillips.

“Crucially, students have broken their silence about loneliness. A year in which many students were going through the same things brought a longstanding issue into the open. 

“By talking about this subject and listening when others do, it also becomes possible to differentiate between degrees and forms of loneliness, so to identify times and places in which interventions are most needed. 

“Listening to students talking about their own loneliness and about what they do to cope with or address it may also provide insights for those in positions of authority and influence. There are lessons here for a range of policy makers and practitioners, from student accommodation managers to student services and from health providers to policymakers, such as the UK government’s Loneliness Unit. 

The lesson, according to Phillips and the team of students, is that the first step, for those who are trying to understand and mitigate loneliness, is to really listen to those who are most affected, for they will know their own loneliness and have the best ideas for what to do about it. 

Find out more about Professor Richard Phillips’ work

If you are struggling to cope with loneliness as a student or otherwise, there are resources available. Try Living with loneliness - Mind.org or the NHS’s guide when feeling lonely.

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