Why College Can Be a Lonely Place

(Written August, 1986)

Why do many people get depressed in college? We’re surrounded by people we should be able to relate to best. They have similar academic abilities to ours; they are often from a similar economic background to us. And, of course, they are within four years of us in age. Most college students are not only surrounded by people their own age, but have several real friends nearby.

We have many opportunities to meet with these people, too. There is class, although that often offers little opportunity for interpersonal interactions (you can see the problem starting already). Mostly the class hours are spent facing just a professor and some paper. Besides class, there is homework which can sometimes be done together. This offers time to get together with people informally and share ideas and insights with them. We are somewhat involved in this activity; part of it is impersonal things that don’t touch our hearts.

Many assignments cannot be done with others, though, and sometimes we’re just scared of or not attracted to the others in the class and never make an effort to study with them. And there are social interactions. Dances, movies, parties, speakers, snack bars, bowling, intramural sports. While these activities don’t occur every day, they do offer us a chance to see our peers in a context apart from the main part of college life, the schoolwork. We can be very active during some of these interactions, like bowling, and very passive during others, like movies. Either way, they often provide only marginally less superficial personal contact than studying or classes do.

Take away the people in the social activities and we are left very alone. All we have in common sometimes is the common adversary we face: our homework. We often have to stand alone against that challenge, which is supposed to consume many hours of each day. Physically it is much the same for hours on end: sitting down, reading, writing or typing. Regardless of the fact that the content may be changing, the experience is largely devoid of interesting interactions with other people. Interactions with paper and keyboards are a poor substitute. Friends can’t always be available when we want to take study breaks with them. The pressure is great to conquer the schoolwork and master it, to succeed constantly for weeks on end. Frustration can build up easily under these circumstances.

We are trying to grow up, too, during the college years. We are trying to master not just intellectual problems, but personal problems. Our friendships are especially important as supports for all of the changes as we try to figure out what we will organize our life around – which major, which activities, which lifestyle (including clothes, language use, mannerisms, and eating habits, among other things). Yet college friendships can be hard to maintain, due to the interference of summers, different classes and activities, semesters abroad, and changing interests and personalities. Particularly when our friendships wane and change, college students can get lonely.

And where does help come from? Counseling centers? Academic advisors? It takes much desperation and humility to go to a professional counselor; it’s hard to admit that our problems are serious enough to warrant that step. And perhaps they are of an inappropriate nature for those sorts of people. College students’ problems can be elusive and hard to pin down, the results of an array of factors in the environment and the personality. Maybe school staff could help, since they likely had similar experiences when they were in college. But they are not trusted friends, and intimacy is hard to build. Though their distance could help bring objectivity, it could also bring alienation.

College isn’t always a lonely place. Maybe it never is, for a few people. But many factors seem to collide at college to cause a greater amount of loneliness than at other times in life, at least more than at younger ages. Even though at no time are we more surrounded by peers.

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