By: Jindra Hartog
Why is it that we see student loneliness in such a negative, tainted light? Why do we dismiss it as a personal weakness?
Imagine this: You are hanging out with a group of students, laughing, enjoying yourself and being grateful for having so many people around you. They may not all be your closest friends but at least you are not alone. You’ve seen enough fellow students sitting in the cafeteria, eating their lunch alone. It is not that they seem particularly unhappy, but still, you are glad you’re not them.
Following the diverse impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on all layers of society, the concept of loneliness – especially within the student community – has been brought to attention as an often overlooked and dismissed issue. So, how has student loneliness been stigmatized? And how has this stigma blurred the line between loneliness and merely being alone?
The Stigma Surrounding Student Loneliness
Although many students have experienced a sense of loneliness – and although the negative consequences of long-term loneliness are plenty – loneliness as an issue of mental health is often dismissed or overlooked (Kerr and Stanley 2021).
Especially for young adults, the word itself brings with it many misconceptions and stereotypes. A study researching the correlation between a lonely peer and assumed negative attributes found that college students evaluated the hypothetical lonely student as being less competent, less likeable and boring compared to non-lonely students (Lau and Gruen 1992). This stigmatization of loneliness causes students to feel anxious, ashamed and pressured to have a busy social life, which may result in them resisting help or refusing to reach out (McAlpine 2021).
Some argue that the stigma surrounding loneliness comes from the pride that society places on self-reliance, on being able to face a situation and emerge victorious even without outside help. Someone who is lonely must therefore be weak as they are supposedly incapable of being self-reliant (Corrigan et al. 2006).
Types of Stigma
Today, researchers have identified four types of stigma (Corrigan 2004). First up is public stigma. This is defined as the negative stereotypes and prejudices held by people in a society towards the stigmatized group; in this case, lonely students. Once a public stigma is present, the next three types will often develop (Corrigan 2004).
Next is the perceived public stigma. This type of stigma develops when an individual becomes aware of the public stigma. The focus in this category thus shifts from the group to the individual. Especially in a student environment, where social status holds a lot of value, this type is widely prevalent as students will try to act according to what society deems appropriate and important (Corrigan 2004).
This leads to the third type of stigma, namely personal stigma. This type of stigma develops when someone forms attitudes that coincide with perceived stigma (Corrigan 2004).
Finally, self-stigma. If an individual begins to struggle with upholding what they think society expects from them, they may start applying their stigmatizing attitudes to the self (Corrigan 2004).
This last type brings with it an additional problem. Coming back to student loneliness, lonely students often perceive the social world from a pessimistic point of view. They tend to hold a very negative self-image and expect others to do the same (Lau and Gruen 1992). These beliefs and behaviours often reinforce the cycle of loneliness by causing someone to be more closed off, thereby potentially causing rejection from and of peers (Eisenberg et al. 2009). As Sarah Lipson, a mental health researcher, notes, “Students are more critical of ourselves than they are of other people” (McAlpine 2021). This attitude only worsens their self-image, and therefore their self-esteem (Corrigan 2004).
Loneliness versus Being Alone
Although everyone can imagine someone lonely, it is actually much more difficult to recognize loneliness in real life. It seems as if people automatically assume that when they see someone sitting alone – in the cafeteria, a restaurant or a park for example – that they must be lonely. The image of a person alone is often perceived as pitiful, following a thought similar to ‘they must have had no one else to sit with’ or ‘they must feel very alone and unhappy’ (Kerr and Stanley 2021).
In actuality this is not always the case. Research has proven that many people like o do things on their own, to have some time to themselves, to go out for dinner accompanied by a good book, simply because they felt like it. Unfortunately, because of social stigma, students will often refrain from going out on their own as they feel ashamed or scared of being judged by their peers (McIntyre et al. 2018).
Student Mental Health
The student period in life is often considered the most socially demanding decade in someone’s life as expectations of social activity – both from others and from themselves – are incredibly high (McIntyre et al. 2018). Although it is actually very healthy for students to spend time on their own, demanding social agendas, busy college weeks and navigating various social stigmas can prevent students from finding and making use of this downtime (McIntyre et al. 2018). Instead, when they find themselves unintentionally alone, rather than relaxing and focusing on themselves, they panic and stress to find another social activity to avoid being linked with any type of negative connotation (Eisenberg et al. 2009).
Corrigan, P. W. (2004). “How stigma interferes with mental health care.” American Psychologist 59, 614-625.
Corrigan, P. W., A. C. Watson and L. Barr (2006). “The self-stigma of mental illness: Implications for self-esteem and self-efficacy.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 25, 875-884.
Eisenberg, D., M. F. Downs, E. Golberstein and K. Zivin (2009). “Stigma and help-seeking for mental health among college students.” Medical care research and review: MCRR 66(5), 522–541.
McIntyre, J. C., J. Worsley, R. Corcoran, P. Harrison Woods and R. P. Bentall (2018). “Academic and non-academic predictors of student psychological distress: The role of social identity and loneliness.” Journal of Mental Health 27(3), 230-239.
McAlpine, K. (2021). “Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness Are Peaking in College Students.” Boston University. At http://www.bu.edu/articles/2021/depression-anxiety-loneliness-are-peaking-in-college-students/.
Kerr, A. N., T. B. Stanley (2021). “Revisiting the social stigma of loneliness.” Personality and Individual Differences 171.
Lau, S., and G. E. Gruen (1992). “The Social Stigma of Loneliness: Effect of Target Person’s and Perceiver’s Sex.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 18(2), 182–189.