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How Higher Education can support students through loneliness

13 January 2022

The January blues are a well-established phenomenon, and for students this can be compounded by a feeling of loneliness when returning to university after the festive break. Kerry Watson, Student Support Manager, shares some insight into loneliness and how we’re aiming to tackle it in our buildings through January and February.

For lots of people spending time alone brings joy – long walks, indulging in your favourite TV programmes, taking time to focus on yourself and your wellbeing. But spending enjoyable time alone is not the same as feeling lonely.

This New Year, we at Unite Students want to recognise loneliness: what it is; why we can feel this way; how we can start to combat it; and how we can break the stigma sometimes associated with it. So we’re running a ‘Winter Wellbeing’ campaign for our students from mid-January to mid-February – but more on that later.


What is loneliness?

It may sound clichéd, but feeling lonely in a crowd is very real and can make talking about how you’re feeling difficult. Telling other people that you’re lonely can feel like admitting to being friendless or unwanted – neither of which paint an Instagram-friendly picture of life and can risk exposing us to other people’s judgments, or ideas about who we are or should be.

“How can you feel lonely? You’re always out with friends.”

“If you feel lonely, just put yourself out there more”

“There are worse things in life than being alone”

For many, loneliness is a constant that doesn’t disappear even in the company of others. It can be linked to how we feel about ourselves, our self-confidence or identity, and can silently prevent us from enjoying life to its fullest.

Loneliness may be associated with challenging or traumatic events; research suggests that it may be most prevalent at specific times in life that are often linked to periods of transition or change, such as experiencing a bereavement, the breakdown of a relationship, homesickness after moving to a new city or country, being unwell, or struggling financially. We can all resonate with some of these ourselves, and so can the students living in our buildings.

Due to Covid-19, the opportunity to connect meaningfully with our friends and families has been inhibited more than ever before and making new social networks can present challenges.  The Office of National Statistics reported in 2020 that over a quarter of students surveyed reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 8% of the general adult population in the UK over a similar period.

Although not recognised as a mental health condition, loneliness can be painful, leading to other emotions such as sadness and distress. This can impact our mental health and be connected to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.


Our ‘Winter Wellbeing’ campaign

In mid-January, we’re launching our ‘Winter Wellbeing’ campaign for students in order to combat loneliness and more general January blues. Activities to support this include:

  • A national wellbeing e-newsletter to all residents
  • Wellbeing and loneliness content on The Common Room, our student-facing blog platform
  • Delivery of ‘Look After Your Mate’ workshops to students
  • Local events and activities to encourage students to interact and look after themselves

We’re also providing advice and professional, confidential support where required to our employees to safeguard their mental health – as supporting our teams helps us to support the students that live with us.


Breaking the loneliness stigma

We know that loneliness is a common, normal human response to a lack of social interaction. So how can we break the stigma and start the conversation about ending loneliness for good?

Here are some of the advice we’re sharing with students on the matter:

  • How you feel matters: Talking about loneliness and acknowledging the effect it can have is the first step to. Speaking openly about how you are feeling or being a supportive person to another, not only validates but also encourages openness and acceptance.
  • Meaningful connections: Spending time doing activities or hobbies with people who bring you joy, and genuine connection can help to overcome the feeling of being lonely. When’s the last time you went for a coffee with a friend or called someone you miss – has life got in the way? Make connecting a priority.
  • Be kind to yourself: Investing in your wellbeing is not only good for your overall health but can also help improve mood, mental health and may even open doors to new friendships and support networks. Eating well, being active, and doing the things you enjoy are all key to making positive steps towards overcoming or preventing loneliness.
  • Start the conversation: Whether it’s opening up to a friend, seeking new friends, reconnecting with existing social circles or considering talking therapies, there are many resources available to support you through periods of loneliness.

More information and a campaign pack will be made available soon – contact your local Unite Students representative for more information.


If you need support, don’t suffer in silence. The Mental Health Foundation has a list of resources and suggestions available here. Where wellbeing concerns involve your work, reach out to your line manager or HR team.

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