As humans, we have an innate need to belong and be part of a community to feel like we matter. Even though more and more people feel lonely, loneliness still often comes with a great deal of shame. Perhaps that is why the word “loneliness” still seems like such a taboo, as it may be associated with feelings of unworthiness and having failed as a member of one’s community.
You cannot usually tell if someone is lonely simply by looking at them. Even your happy, social and talkative acquaintances may feel lonely. For some, the feeling only intensifies in company, whereas others fill the void created by loneliness with endless tasks and responsibilities. However, not everyone has the option of keeping themselves busy. Many may have to face their feelings of loneliness by themselves at home.
Along with mental health problems, loneliness has emerged as a major area of research during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies show worrying results: in 2021, a quarter of higher-education students reported experiencing loneliness, and one in three said they did not feel like they belonged to any group related to their studies. Loneliness is especially prevalent among 18–22-year-old women in higher education. Within this group, as many as three out of four respondents reported currently feeling more lonely than before the pandemic.
Loneliness is a major threat to both societal and individual well-being and a problem that needs to be solved quickly. The feeling of loneliness radically increases the risk of mental health problems, and the intense shame associated with it only makes matters worse. When students do not have a chance to discuss their insecurities and the challenges they have encountered, or receive community or peer support, it is difficult for them to feel capable of studying and growing as experts.
Even though the pandemic is now subsiding, student well-being is still in dire need of investment. Students are already experiencing more mental health-related challenges than the general population, which is why we need to provide them with better support. During the pandemic, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture funded several projects related to student well-being. Despite the fact that these projects have now been completed, we still need preventative action to help students combat feelings of loneliness.
For that reason, we have proposed the development of national-level solutions that would help students at risk of dropping out resume their higher-education studies. Especially considering that the election season is upon us again, we must secure sufficient funding for education to ensure that all students are provided with adequate time and resources to complete their studies. We need time to network, build communities and grow into experts in our fields – together.
Nyyti ry and HelsinkiMission’s Loneliness in Higher Education project offers students both one-to-one support and peer-support groups to help them process feelings of loneliness. The project includes a confidential chat channel to support those suffering from loneliness. The channel is open on Wednesdays from 1 March to 30 April between 2 pm and 4 pm. Read more on Nyyti’s website: https://www.nyyti.fi/hankkeet/yksinaisyystyo-korkeakouluissa-hanke/toimintaa-opiskelijoille/