Lonely Deakin: The Silent Epidemic

Written by James Patrik

Loneliness seems to be an epidemic in our society and, at university, it’s an insidious problem that often appears invisible. Portrayals of campus life in TV and film soon give way to the sobering reality that, for some of us, attending university can be a painfully solitary experience.

As a student of Psychology, these ideas began to percolate as I perused the Deakin Love Letters Facebook page. Like a KFC dinner, it’s a guilty pleasure. It often succinctly and effectively captures the zeitgeist of all campuses on any given day. Before too long, I began to notice an emerging trend in some of the comments and posts: lonely students, crying out for simple companionship and human contact. Sound familiar?  Examples of students in second, third, and even fourth year who had ‘no one to talk to’ became commonplace. I was shocked. How could this be possible?

It was sheer dumb luck that I made some friends in my first week at Deakin. It was affection and a considerable amount of effort that helped keep us together. Two years later, we’re a surrogate family, even welcoming a new member into our fold. Typically, we see each other multiple times a week, simply hanging around, conversing on subjects both profound and trivial. Common interests certainly helped cement our friendship. A shared passion for science fiction, anime, and junk food continues to be the glue that binds us so profoundly.

Speaking solely for myself, my friends have been an emotional bulletproof vest—a flak jacket protecting me from self-doubt, stress, depressive episodes, and the ever-present urge to quit university and get a job at Kmart.

Cheesy as it may be to admit, what we have is unique. Special. Why don’t others have it?  What’s stopping people from making friends? Why are they so lonely? To answer these questions, I decided a frank conversation with my own group was in order. They, too, have had little luck forging new connections outside our circle.

Unsurprisingly, the blame was quickly laid at the feet of social media, and by extension, increased internet use. This perspective is hardly novel, but hearing it articulated by my peers was surprising. 

One friend offered, ‘People don’t have the social skills they used to because of social media.  Fear of other people is heightened once the safety net of the phone is removed.’

‘It’s nature versus nurture. Some people have grown up online. It’s a place where they can behave differently. In the real world, they have to deal with facial expressions and concepts like sarcasm. Conversation can be difficult if you don’t know how to read social cues.’

While laziness surrounding social obligations seemed to add to the problem, my friends were quick to point out that anxiety, a fear of judgment, and good old-fashioned garden-variety shyness were also contributors.

‘People are standoffish and unwilling to make the first move. But then again, so was I. Is that shyness?  It seems like people are very guarded, emotionally.’

One can’t blame a new student from being apprehensive. Commencing study at university is—for most people—a life-altering experience. I can relate. Fuelled by palm-sweating anxiety, I spent my first full week of classes frantically talking to everyone I could in an attempt to forge a connection. Needless to say, I wasn’t always successful. Over-excited (and wearing far too much aftershave), I probably scared some people away!

During O’Week, I decided to enquire about some of the more structured social activities offered by Deakin. A friend who lived on campus for a year offered his perspective:

‘These types of events are fine, but they often cater to the most extroverted types of people. To those who are more introverted, they are off-putting. It doesn’t work for everyone.’

Indeed, it seems like those at the more introverted end of the spectrum constitute a kind of ‘silent majority’ at Deakin. In my own group, activities are often low key: writing, creative endeavours, movie nights, and pointless trips to Chadstone. None of us really enjoy drinking, and our time together is often relaxed and laid back.

‘We introverted people are everywhere—hiding in plain sight,’ offers another friend who would rather spend his evenings watching films than going out.

So, what’s the solution? To anyone new to university, I would humbly offer the following advice: find your people. They’re out there. People like you—no matter how obscure you think your interests are, someone on campus will share them.  Be brave and invest in the search.

Use your fear and know for certain that you are not the only one feeling it. If you’re unsure, simply ‘fake it till you make it’. Act with confidence and, sure enough, real confidence will eventually find you.

Don’t rely on class time to make friends. Sure, they can be a good place to meet people, but classes are tightly structured, leaving little space for conversations to breathe. Try and take that budding rapport to the next level by asking someone to join you for coffee, getting together to study for an upcoming exam, or even walking to and from class. 

Lastly—don’t give up. For those with genuine social anxiety, this may be easier said than done.  University can sometimes seem like a large, scary machine filled with thousands of people. That just means you have an even greater chance of success—greater odds that you will find someone who enjoys the same things as you. University life doesn’t have to feel scary, and you need not walk the path by yourself. Finding yourself a friend could be one of the greatest things you could do for your mental health.

This article was written before COVID-19. Although majority of classes aren’t operating on campus, many clubs are still running. You can find clubs at Deakin here.


Read more of James’ work in the Power edition of WORDLY Magazine.

3 Comments

  1. Great write up! As an introvert, completely agree with this. It took me years to make friends at uni and it was only after putting myself out there and getting to club events and getting involved in extra curriculars.

  2. Dude, what an awesome and thought provoking piece! Especially in this time of lockdown, an interesting view point in uni life!

  3. A very thoughtful and well-written piece, James.

    As regards your observation that laying the blame at the feet of the Internet and social media is hardly a novel perspective, I have to say, ‘If the shoe fits…’

    It’s been my observation that the erosion of social skills attributable to the Internet and social media is not restricted to the millennial generation. It feels like all three generations—Boomers, X’ers, and Gen-Y—have all had their social skills wiped out at a pinch by the migration to online communication. Certainly, COVID doesn’t help us to recover the face-to-face communication skills that have been diminished in the last twenty years, but all the suggestions you make here are good ones. At some point, we’ve just got to get out there and put ourselves forward to people in a genuine and congruent way.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful insights, James.

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