Is loneliness an issue for foreign students?

Creating a social life in a new country is something that always takes time. How do foreign students cope in one of the loneliest countries in Europe?

Loneliness UK University Students
Chris says that he found it difficult to make friends at university.

When he arrived in Nottingham, to study Mathematics in 2013, Chris felt “free and ready to meet people.”

However, he soon discovered that having a social life was not as easy as he had imagined.

“Loneliness started because of my long working hours. I had to sacrifice my social life, otherwise I wouldn’t meet my work targets. I was working every day from nine to five. I went home after school, cooked and then I had to study. I didn’t even think that it would be possible for me to go out with someone.

“Social life just didn’t exist. It felt like it was the same day, every day. I was depressed, I didn’t want to move. I was lost in my head, I felt that I only lived mentally, not physically.”

According to an Office for National Statistics survey, Britain ranks 26th out of 28 EU countries by the proportion of the population who say they have someone they could rely on if they have a serious problem.

Over 9 million adults in the UK are either always or often lonely. Among the groups which are deemed to be more at risk are people aged 17 to 25.

Loneliness students uk
Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Couch was appointed as ‘Minister of Loneliness in January’ – via wikimedia commons.

“Life transitions such as entering university and moving from your home country can be key triggers for loneliness, on par with experiencing a divorce or retirement,” says Paul Farmer, CEO of the mental health charity, Mind.

“Although loneliness can affect anyone and has no single cause, the link to identity is common and crucial. It means major life events which change someone’s sense of self and their ability to connect with other people should be seen as moments of particular risk,” Mr. Farmer added.

According to Daisy Leach of the Student Support and Wellbeing office of Cardiff University, loneliness in higher education is much more common than people think.

Moving away from home, exam stress, deadlines, financial stress and worries about the future are high-risk factors for loneliness and depression.

Loneliness University UK Students
Cardiff Nightline is student run charity that offers emotional support and advice to students.

Chris admits that the difficulty of integrating into a new environment and culture was one of the most important reasons that made him feel socially isolated.

“It was my fault because I didn’t want to assimilate in the environment of my class. I went out a couple of times with my classmates, but I realized that we didn’t have anything in common, so I stopped trying.”

Evidence suggests that loneliness is associated with increased risk of dying, sleep problems, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, increased risk of dementia and depression.

“Loneliness certainly affected my depression. The fact that I spent too much time alone, in a very unhealthy mental state was detrimental. When you have very negative thoughts in your mind for a long time, and every day is worse, and every day you give up more the will to live and get out of bed, if you don’t have someone there – not a friend, just a person to just exist in the house, to even have a silly conversation with – it affects your depression a lot.

“I stopped working out, I didn’t eat well, I showered less often. I woke up at noon, I fell asleep at dawn and the only thing I ate during that whole time was five biscuits. When you sink too much into depression, having friends is not enough, there you need professional help. But during the build-up to that point, if you had someone, it would help prevent it,” Chris says.

Loneliness UK University Students
Chris is now working in Nottingham after having completed an MSc in Computational Mathematics at the University of Derby.

Xenios, also from Cyprus, moved to the UK in 2013 after a two-year military service. He completed his degree in Medical Physics last June.

“It was very difficult for me to integrate in the academic environment because I came from a very different one. That of the army. Also, the culture was very different and I didn’t know anyone from my country there. Maybe if I knew someone from my country, I would be more confident to open up to other people. I didn’t have that, so it was difficult for me to go alone and try to meet people,” Xenios says.

It took Xenios two and a half years to build a social life.

“I feel that it shouldn’t take so long for someone like me to create a social life. I found myself being desperate to make friends. If I saw someone who I wanted to hang out with, I was desperate to initiate this friendship and this came out as needy.”

Xenios, 24, from Cyprus, was studying at Nottingham University until last June.

Xenios and Chris admit that one of the things that separated them from other students was their ideas about entertainment. Like many people they found Britain’s drinking culture a bit too much.

“Many times, this pushed me away from people. For example, I might have wanted to go to a psychedelic rock night and my ‘potential’ friends wanted to go out and get wasted. We had very different perceptions on how to have fun on Friday and Saturday nights,” Chris says.

The fact that he didn’t follow this drinking culture made him feel alienated and that he was being looked down upon by other people for not being ‘cool’ enough.

“I was fed up with the drinking culture in the UK. It felt like it was the only thing people did to have fun. So, I stopped going out. Where would you go? To another pub?” Xenios adds.

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Xenios got his MSc in Medical Physics last June.

Both students also say that they experienced racism. This made their efforts to assimilate into a new environment more difficult as they felt isolated and unwanted.

“One day, during the Brexit campaign I was waiting at the bus stop to go to university, and a guy with military pants and an English Defence League shirt stared me down,” Xenios says.

“Whenever I wore a suit, people’s perception about me changed. A girl from my tutorial group once saw me and said “Wow, you have a smart jacket, I didn’t expect that from you”. Another time, I saw one of my classmates at a classical music concert and he said “Oh, I didn’t know you were cultured,” Xenios adds.

Last week, a student at Nottingham Trent University, Rufaro Chisango, fell victim or racist abuse in her university halls. The incident, which she filmed, made headlines in British news.

Like Xenios, Rufaro and many other students, racism was an issue that Chris had to deal as well while trying to settle into his new life. This made him feel that he was not welcome to Britain.

“I was on the bus, trying to go somewhere. I had my guitar with me and a man said something to me. I didn’t hear well so I said ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying. He replied, ‘you don’t understand?’

“As I turned to look at him he spat on my guitar.”

What to do if you feel lonely at University:

Although you might think that everyone else is out having fun, they’re probably doing exactly the same thing as you, sitting under a blanket refreshing Facebook. Even if you are shy, remember your peers are often in the same situation and appreciate you talking to them. Perhaps you could try to:

  • Say hello to someone before and after each lecture. This will help build a relationship between the two of you.
  • Join a society. Clubs or societies can be a great way to get to know people and create a work-life balance. See what’s on offer at the fresher’s fair or, if you missed it, you can find out from your Students’ Union at any time.
  • Volunteering can help you meet people who share an interest with you. Your Students’ Union may be able to help you do this. Alternatively, has lots of helpful information.
  • Nightline is a confidential listening and emotional support student service for you to call. Most British universities run their own nightlines. Try and call them if you feel that your negative emotions are becoming too much.
  • Book an appointment with your school’s counselling and well-being services. Cardiff University offers daily walk-in services as well as appointments that you can pre-book. Find more information here.