Scottish university students suffer in epidemic of loneliness

"It’s nice to spend some time with one another. Especially with the cost-of-living crisis, it makes such a difference to not have to worry about what you’re going to eat for one day a week.”  <i>(Image: Newsquest)</i>
"It’s nice to spend some time with one another. Especially with the cost-of-living crisis, it makes such a difference to not have to worry about what you’re going to eat for one day a week.” (Image: Newsquest)

Scottish universities are being urged to step up their efforts in tackling an epidemic of loneliness after new research found that 92% of students experience loneliness at some point during their time at university.

The findings by YouGov display a stigma around the issue, showing that 53% of students would feel uncomfortable seeking help for loneliness, while 43% worry that they would be judged by their appears for admitting to feeling isolated.

Amid a climate of growing concern around the mental health of university students, as well as ongoing financial strain, the National Union of Students Scotland are calling for more to be done stem the tide of loneliness experienced on the country’s campuses.

NUS Scotland President Ellie Gommersall said: “These statistics are incredibly worrying. Loneliness is a major contributor to severe mental health problems, and we are already in the midst of a student mental health crisis, a recent survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation and Universities Scotland found that over a third (35.5%) of university students had experienced moderately severe to severe symptoms of depression.

“Additionally, students are becoming more and more isolated because of the cost-of-living crisis. A survery by NUS Scotland earlier this year found that students are cutting down on socialising because they simply cannot afford to see their friends. Furthermore, the student housing crisis is forcing students to live further and further from their place of study and their fellow students.

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“Tackling student loneliness requires a holistic approach to tackling student poverty. Students need financial support in line with the Real Living Wage so that they are not forced to choose between eating, studying and seeing their friends. Universities and the Scottish Government must also work together to make sure that students can afford to live close to campus, in accommodation that allows them to easily access mental health support.”

In a week where freshers across Scotland are settling into their new lives at university, the YouGov survey also finds that nearly two-thirds of LBGT students felt anxious about loneliness ahead of starting their course, compared to less than half of heterosexual people beginning their university career.

Furthermore, 61% of disabled students said they would feel uncomfortable discussing their feelings of isolation with others, a figure that drops to 51% for non-disabled students.

Alongside the research, the UK Government has announced a partnership with several student charities and bodies, as well as international restaurant chain Wingstop, with the aim of making young people “feel more comfortable in talking about loneliness.”

While loneliness campaigners have welcomed this new initiative, it has also been argued that steps are “best taken by the university themselves.”

The Herald: Graduates from Edinburgh Napier University
The Herald: Graduates from Edinburgh Napier University

Robin Hewings, Director of the Campaign Loneliness, said: “On some level universities have always understood the value of social opportunities through their clubs and societies.

“However, the value of focussing on loneliness is that it picks up the students who may not be having such a great time. That might be due to many reasons - but the common experience of loneliness can itself be a way of bringing people together.”

Hewings also pointed to a growing focus on the issue in universities across the country, describing “some green shoots of really exciting practice”, such as new apps that connect students with similar interests and link workers who actively bring isolated people together on campus.

The Herald contacted 15 universities in Scotland to ask about their specific plans for tackling loneliness in their institution, as well as how they are endeavouring to enable students to open up against the backdrop of sustained stigma and feared ridicule.

Of the nine institutions who responded, seven reported multiple initiatives and services aimed at incorporating students in university life. All of the respondents said that they are actively taking measures to address loneliness on campus.

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Queen Margaret University, based just outside Edinburgh, responded to their own research into student isolation by creating the ‘Thank Goodness It’s Thursday’ initiative. Run by staff volunteers, the weekly event offers students a free meal and the opportunity to partake in activities with their peers.

A winner at the Herald Higher Education Awards earlier this year, the scheme had seen 5600 hot meals and £500 of vouchers handed out by May 2023.

One frequent attendee, Roisin, said: “A big part of this is the social element. It’s nice to spend some time with one another. Especially with the cost-of-living crisis, it makes such a difference to not have to worry about what you’re going to eat for one day a week.”

Several initiatives were highlighted by the institutions, including Glasgow Caledonian University’s Global Buddies programme, which pairs international students with Scottish-based peers to help them acclimatise to the new culture.

The University of Stirling pointed to their award-winning wellness suite, while Herriot-Watt University stressed the importance of new students attending their induction week sessions to ensure they know what to expect on campus.

The Herald: Heriot-Watt University
The Herald: Heriot-Watt University

In Aberdeen, the University admitted that a large student population makes it “challenging for us to engage with every student”, but hosts a range of events and schemes in hope of bring students together.

Robert Gordon University said their survey data shows that the majority of students find friends at university, though they still strive to minimise the impact of isolation, as the University of Edinburgh emphasised the power of sports clubs and societies in bringing people together.

Counselling and mental health services were identified as key by Edinburgh Napier University, while the University of Highlands and Islands highlighted consultation with students – working off their recommendations on how best to improve induction.

The sample research of more than 1000 students across the UK found that loneliness was the issue young people felt most uncomfortable seeking help with, ahead of fitting in, managing money and course difficulty.

Gommersall added: “I urge any student who is experiencing loneliness to reach out to their students’ association for help and advice, and to check out the Think Positive Hub to find out what support is available to them."