How to Help Your College Student Cope With Loneliness

Loneliness is a common problem among college students, especially those who are beginning their freshman year. In fact, many would say that it is to be expected. But that does not make it any easier to cope with. Not only is it a difficult experience to weather, but many college students do not feel comfortable talking about or even admitting to their feelings.

Plus homesickness, anxiety, and depression can all be a part of the experience as well. So, it is not surprising that mental health issues are among the top concerns that college students face each day.

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The Scope of the Problem

Loneliness is a huge issue on campuses across the country. In fact, in one survey conducted by the American College Health Association of nearly 48,000 college students found that a whopping 67% of females and 54% of males had felt "very lonely" in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, only 20% of students say they had never felt lonely at college.

The students surveyed also indicated feeling overwhelming anxiety as well as feeling that things were hopeless. Nearly 12% had seriously considered suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

These are startling numbers for both students and parents who are sending their kids off to college. In fact, a study by Penn State University's Center for Collegiate Mental Health discovered that there has been an increase the in the number of students reporting depression and anxiety, with more than 60% of students indicating that anxiety was their biggest concern and nearly 50% indicating depression was a concern for them.

Meanwhile, a study administered by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute had similar results. They found that 12% of students reported frequently feeling depressed during the past year and nearly 35% of students felt frequently anxious. Additionally, 14% said there was a very good chance that they would seek counseling in college.

Meanwhile, relational issues, self-esteem, social anxiety, and interpersonal—all of which can contribute to loneliness—were also high concerns. What's more, the number of students accessing a college's mental health services also increased. Clearly, mental health issues are a growing concern for college students across the nation.

Causes of Loneliness

While loneliness is a common issue among college students, the causes are not what you might expect. For instance, it is not always the lack of people that makes a student feel lonely, but the lack of quality interactions. In fact, it is not uncommon for college students to report that they feel lonely at college despite being in a crowd of people they know and with whom they spend time.

Social media is a huge contributor to this experience despite the "connectedness" that it promises. In fact, technology is making it increasingly difficult for some students to adjust to college. For instance, social media is very useful in making plans when a student already has connections in place, but when they do not have many, or any, connections, it just amplifies their loneliness.

A study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found an association between social media use and "perceived" social isolation.

What they discovered is that young adults who frequently use social media seem to feel more socially isolated than those who do not use social media as often.

It can be very hard for a young adult to watch the "highlight reels" of her peers on social media and assume everything is going well for others while she is sitting alone in her dorm room. Additionally, retreating into online gaming, Netflix, and other online escapes also hinders the chances of connecting with others.

Other factors contributing to the loneliness that students feel are their expectations. Students are often shocked when they recognize how overwhelmed they feel by their emotions. They also start to realize that the visions they had for their college experience do not match with the feelings they are experiencing.

Combatting Loneliness

One of the best ways to cope with college loneliness is to recognize that it is a very real possibility and then take steps to keep it at bay. The first way to do that is to get involved on campus. A number of students who report loneliness also have not taken steps to get involved. Believe it or not, staying busy is one of the best ways to beat the loneliness blues.

To some students, getting involved can seem overwhelming, especially when they want to focus on their studies. However, research has shown that the more active students are in outside activities, the better their academics will be.

For shy or introverted students, getting involved or striking up conversations can seem like a daunting task and one that they want to avoid at all costs. For these students, it is important that they set small goals for themselves.

For instance, they can set a goal to say hello to at least one person in each class or to sit with a new person at lunch at least once or twice a week.

It also helps to remind students that a lot of other students are feeling exactly how they are feeling. So, putting themselves out there not only will help them but could be a huge help to someone else as well. Unlike in high school, there are very few pre-formed friend groups in college. So, the opportunity to meet new people and make friends may be much greater in college.

Addressing Loneliness

Even though it is common for students to assume that they are the only ones feeling lonely, students need to remember that there are a lot of other students on campus feeling lonely and disconnected. For this reason, it often helps to open up and be honest about how they are feeling.

Talking about feelings with others not only helps students deal with their situations, but it also helps them connect with others who are feeling the same way.

It is important to remember that colleges are often equipped with resources and services to address these types of issues. From group sessions and counseling to workshops on everything from mindfulness to coping skills, colleges typically have a plethora of options for students. The key is simply doing a little research and then following through on getting the help that they need.

Group settings often help students normalize their feelings as well as help them develop connections with others. What's more, group settings also may help prevent any emotional setbacks while at college.

Remember, loneliness by itself is not a mental health issue, but other issues like social anxiety and depression can be contributing factors. So, it helps to reach out for assistance when struggling with loneliness to see if there might be something more significant behind those feelings.

Another way to address loneliness at college is to limit the amount of technology being used and instead focus on leaving the dorm and getting involved. Whether that means joining a club, a sport, or a religious group, the key is to put the emphasis on face-to-face interactions and reduce the amount of social media, gaming, and Netflix that are used.

It also helps to stay connected with family and friends from home, but not at the expense of becoming immersed in the college environment. For instance, touching base regularly through text and a once-a-week FaceTime date is adequate.

Parents, friends, or significant others should never insist on a FaceTime call when a student has an opportunity to meet with other students. The important thing is to be flexible and encourage students to connect with others while keeping in touch with those at home.

The combination of the two reminds them that they are not alone. There are still plenty of people in the world that care about them. Plus, there is room in their life for new relationships and friendships. They just need to be encouraged to go out there and take advantage of it.

What Parents Can Do

Hearing that your college student is lonely while they are miles from home is gut-wrenching for parents. But, there are things that parents can do without hovering over their college-age kids.

One of the best ways to address the issue is to remind your student that the ability to socialize with others and make friends is not a fixed trait. Instead, it is more of a muscle that they can strengthen and grow.

Too many times when students struggle with loneliness they turn inward and criticize or blame themselves. They feel there must be something wrong with them.

But the truth is, with a little effort, anyone can make friends.

Any time a parent hears this type of self-blame, they need to correct it and remind their student that building lasting connections takes time. It's also important to remind them that they are not doing anything wrong—what they are going through is to be expected and is absolutely normal. Encourage them to get involved to avoid wallowing or fixating on something negative for too long.

Some ideas might include inviting someone to study with them over coffee, sitting with someone new at lunch, joining a club or a group, and going to college-organized events and mixers.

Also, encourage them to have reasonable expectations. Expecting to have close friendships almost immediately, like the ones they have at home, is not realistic. It takes some time to build a connection with someone and expecting an immediate friendship is unfair to them and those they are meeting. Consequently, they need to be patient with themselves and with others.

Additionally, remind them that making friends and feeling connected on campus does not just automatically happen. It takes effort and work. Sure, it will be draining at times to continue to put themselves out there, especially if they are shy or introverted, but it is worth it in the end. Some of their best friends are somewhere on campus. They just need to find them.

Finally, do not try to swoop in and rescue your college student. They need to figure this out and learn how to push themselves on their own without you clearing a path for them. The most important thing you can do for your student right now is to simply be there for them and to listen and empathize.

Refrain from offering too much advice, but instead, try to position yourself as a safe place for them to get things off of their chest.

They do not need you to fix things for them but instead to empower them to fix it themselves.

A Word From Verywell

The important thing for students and parents to remember is that feeling lonely at college is normal and okay. First, it is a sign that the students come from healthy relationships at home—both with friends and family. Second, the fact that they recognize loneliness and do not like it also indicates not only their desire for friendships and relationships but also their ability to forge new ones. After all, it makes sense that they would feel a little lonely after leaving the safety and security of their home.

Just remind students that while their situation seems unbearable, they have the ability and the resources to not only cope with it, but to learn from it as well. Encourage them to make use of the resources on campus, to get involved, and to not allow themselves to be isolated. Additionally, if they also are struggling with anxiety or depression, empower them to seek the help of a professional at the college's health center.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American College Health Association. National College Health Assessment.

  2. Penn State University. Center for Collegiate Mental Health: Annual Report.

  3. UCLA Higher Education Research Institute. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016.

  4. Primack BA, Shensa A, Sidani JE, et al. Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.SAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2017;53(1):1-8. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010

  5. National Center for Education Statistics. Extracurricular participation and student engagement.