Eithne Dodd looks at why so many students feel isolated in UCD and what can be done about it.
EARLIER this month, the University Observer published an article entitled “Double Major Isolation” in which four double major arts students in UCD spoke about the feelings of isolation and loneliness that two often come with doing the joint honours BA. How big is a problem like loneliness in UCD? No one could say for sure , however what can be examined is what is being done to combat it.
Loneliness is a common feeling among the student body of UCD. Mental health surveys done in the UK have found loneliness to be an issue that affects those in the 18 – 24 year old age bracket as it does the elderly.
Students’ Union Welfare Officer Roisin O’Mara said “It definitely is a problem and it is definitely one that we are trying to address both ourselves and the university.”
There are a variety of ways a student can seek support if feeling lonely or isolated. Science student advisor Paola Carrettoni listed the student advisors, peer mentors, orientation guides, student health service, and societies all as places where students could go to seek help.
Student advisors for arts and humanities students Ronan Murphy and Kieran Moloney stated that “the student advisers, chaplains and Students’ Union are always here on a drop-in basis for students with questions and doubts. Each student society will also have on-going events and meetings throughout the year to encourage students sharing the same interests to get together.”
“We have a UCD Community website to guide students. Students can also consider speaking with someone from the Student Health Service if they are encountering problems such as loneliness and isolation.”
“It definitely is a problem and it is definitely one that we are trying to address both ourselves and the university.”
“It is important that students also take responsibility for themselves” added Murphy and Moloney. “That could be as simple as saying to one of us that you’re feeling lonely, or isolated, or haven’t settled in yet. We can help, but we can’t help if we don’t know. . . . We can help by providing information, creating contacts, encouraging conversation and setting goals but ultimately each student has to take ownership of their own direction” they said.
Transitioning, as most Irish students do, from a school population of between two and four hundred people to UCD can not only be potentially isolating but prolonged periods of loneliness can be harmful to health if not checked.
“As staff members working in the area of student support, we are used to dealing with students who encounter challenges relating to the transition to college. Having said that, students tend not to name loneliness and isolation as their primary concerns” said Murphy and Moloney.
O’Mara said she has had a lot of students coming to her this year who were feel very lonely and finding it hard to settle in. “I think it’s just the nature of a very big university” she said.
One of the purposes of the Students’ Union, O’Mara said, is to be the “five friendly faces in the corridor that students know who we are and can come to us if they need to have a chat”.
“I’ve found with loneliness that other issues come with it as well. It’s not just being lonely there’s often quite a lot of underlying or overlying issues with it.”
It’s no secret, and this newspaper has said it many times; UCD is a big place. It’s the biggest university in Ireland and when you’re in the biggest university in the country you might find that you never see the same people in the corridors.
However Murphy and Moloney argue that the large size of the University can actually be an advantage “in a population this big, there are always people like you here. Sometimes it can just take time to find them.”
A big issue that feeds into feelings of loneliness and isolation is that of comparison. According to Murphy and Moloney, students who feel lonely may have that feeling heightened by thinking that everyone around them is getting on better than they are, socialising more and getting more out of college.
“This can cause students to withdraw from friends and family, neglect their studies and virtually drop out of the university. It can have an adverse effect on their self-esteem and mental health and lead to negative associations with the university” they said.
O’Mara also spoke about student stereotypes that can lead people to feel lonely. “People have this stereotype of students, especially first year students, that they’re all just mad to go out partying and having sex with everybody and that not the case at all. It can be quite an isolating experience to know that this is what people expect of you and you’re not filling that expectation role and you’re like ‘oh my God what am I doing, is there something wrong with me, I don’t want to go out, I’m not comfortable with this’… There’s no reason to fulfil the archetype experience” O’Mara said.
Shame is also a factor in students not seeking help when they feel isolated. “There can be some shame around saying that you’re lonely” Murphy and Moloney continued “particularly when the pressure to present a happy image is so intense, especially on social media. So what students sometimes do is call in about an academic issue, say an exam result, and during the course of our conversation other issues which need attention will emerge.”
“It takes a lot of courage to speak to a member of staff when you’re vulnerable and we would hope to channel that courage from the start.”
“Talking to someone else, no matter who it is, can help with this process” said Murphy and Moloney. “And ‘process’ is an important word to remember. Coming to college is part of a process, one in which you’re learning all the time about who you are in the world. It is important for students to give themselves permission to be part of a process, and not put pressure on themselves to be a particular way too quickly.”
Loneliness among students often comes with other mental health related issues. Carrettoni said students sometimes come to her with other issues and as that issue is explored, loneliness comes up as a problem. O’Mara has had a similar experience: “I’ve found with loneliness that other issues come with it as well. It’s not just being lonely there’s often quite a lot of underlying or overlying issues with it.”
If a student does seek help from either the welfare officer or their student advisor, the process is very similar. When students come to O’Mara she sits down with them and has a chat for as long they want to “I usually try to find out what they’re comfortable doing and what they’re interests are” she said.
O’Mara often liaises with the student advisors who said that the first thing they do is allow the student to talk. “It takes a lot of courage to speak to a member of staff when you’re vulnerable and we would hope to channel that courage from the start. It shows that someone is taking ownership of their experience and wants to bring about an improvement in their situation” said Murphy and Moloney. From there, the student advisors try to suggest ways for the student to feel more included in the university.
“We always encourage students to come and speak with us about any questions they have, or concerns which are affecting them” said Murphy and Moloney. “
Those of us who work in student support do so because we love working with students. We love the individuality that each student brings to the campus and the month the start of the academic year is an exciting time for us. We really encourage our students to make contact with us.”