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  • Writer's pictureErin Tahvonen, LMHC

A shocking look at mental health in college students: Tackling loneliness to improve functioning

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

Each semester the National College Health Assessment is published by the American College Health Association, reporting the status of whole-body health and functioning in the college population, including mental health. The most recent report from Spring of 2019 provides some jaw-dropping statistics about the state of students’ wellbeing. In the previous 12 months, 66.4% of students nationwide reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, 46.2% noted a period of time they felt too depressed to function, 57.5% endorsed hopelessness, and 67.4% of students said they feel lonely. Even more startling is the fact that 14.4% of respondents say they have seriously considered suicide in the past year, 9.5% have engaged in self-harm, and 2.3% have attempted suicide. These troubling trends have been on the rise for decades. In fact, the CDC reports a 33% increase in suicide across all age groups between 1999 and 2019. Factor in the highly restrictive social distancing policies rolled out in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including those on college campuses, and it is clear that these young adults need our help. Now more than ever, individuals who are in a developmental period predicated on social interaction are isolated and it is taking a toll.

How Loneliness Plays a Role

Humans are social creatures, we require interaction and socialization to survive, and when we’re lacking in interpersonal connection our bodies respond. Imagine, if you didn’t sense and perceive hunger, how would you know your body needed food? You might begin to feel weak, lightheaded. Our body has adapted to send signals that we need nourishment through our experience of hunger. In a similar manner, when our needs for social nourishment are not met, we experience loneliness. While short term activation of loneliness can inspire behavioral changes like spending more quality time with friends and family, chronic loneliness can have a profound effect on our body and mind. Individuals who are lonely experience poor sleep quality, and daytime dysfunction (Matthews, Danese, Gregory, Caspi, Moffitt, et al, 2017), increased risk of depression and alcoholism, lower NK cell activity, and twice the risk developing Alzheimer’s disease (Mushtqu, Shioib, Shah, Mushtaq, 2014). Drs. Cacioppo & Hawkley and colleagues at the University of Chicago have spent their careers investigating the effects of loneliness and their research tells us that prolonged or chronic experiences of this emotional state increases blood pressure, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk; slows wound healing and recovery; activates our HPA-Axis, a system that works in concert with our sympathetic nervous system involved in triggering hormone production in response to stress; decreased activation in the ventral striatum which diminishes the effects of our reward pathways. In all, loneliness takes a toll on your physical health equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

How People Respond to Loneliness

You would think an emotion intended to drive human connection would do just that, but it seems when loneliness passes its threshold of utility (ie when individuals feel lonely and the need remains unmet), loneliness backfires and actually causes people to withdraw from social interaction (Watson & Nesdale, 2012). Lonely individuals are turning more and more to unhealthy levels of technology use, experiencing gaming addictions, and exchanging genuine human interaction for virtual relationships, behaviors that are associated with loneliness, anxiety, depression, poor communication skills, and decreased self-confidence (Peper & Harvey, 2018; Dacin et al, 2016; Iskender, 2018). It becomes a dangerous and self-perpetuating cycle.

How to Help Someone You Love or How to Help Yourself

There isn’t a replacement for human connection. While being alone does not equate to loneliness, as loneliness is a subjective experience, you need to pay attention to the message your body and your brain are sending you.

Warning signs loneliness is taking a toll:

· You find yourself declining invitations to spend time with others, avoiding phone calls, or consistently feel lonely even when you’re with people.

· You are experiencing depression and/or anxiety symptoms such as a sad or worried mood, changes in appetite or sleep, difficulty focusing on your school work.

· Your sleep is impaired and you find it difficult to push out self-blaming or self-defeating thoughts.

· You’re spending too much time using technology (time that exceeds what is required to complete your necessary tasks), you feel anxious when you’re away from technology, you spend excessive time gaming or on social media.

Next steps:

· Remember you are not alone. The statistics can seem scary, but these feelings do not mean something is wrong with you. You are in unprecedented times and you are a human. Feeling sad, anxious, or lonely is your body telling you to act, to get help.

· Resources are available for mental healthcare. The NCHA report indicated that while 66.4% of college students reported overwhelming anxiety, only 24% sought treatment. Of the 46.2% of college students who reported being too depressed to function within the year, only 20% had gotten treatment. You can reach out to your school’s counseling center, talk to your primary care physician, call community mental health centers in your area, or engage the services of a private therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

· Share how you’re feeling with people you trust. Your parents, friends, and family are there for support. The burden is sometimes too heavy to bear alone and keeping it to yourself increases the intensity of the emotional pain. You are not a burden. You are loved.

· Find time to disconnect from technology. Take breaks to “unplug” yourself from devices. Go to dinner without your phone or leave it behind when you go to the gym. Plug your phone in across the room when you’re ready for bed and avoid using devices late at night.

· Study in social locations. If all of your classes are online, head to the library to study or participate in class. Just because you can spend an entire day in your room alone, doesn’t mean you should.

· Get physical. Head to the gym, grab friends and play a sport outdoors, take a walk.

· Monitor your sleep. Sleep disturbances will have a negative impact on emotional regulation very quickly. Try to regulate sleep practices by avoiding technology late in the evening, cutting down on caffeine, eating balanced meals, getting exercise daily, and avoiding daytime naps.

If you are in crisis, reach out for help 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741.

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