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Loneliness in lockdown

The student population is suffering…

Over three weeks into the third national lockdown, many students are struggling with the presence of loneliness as they try to continue with their lives from a distance.

Said to be a pandemic running parallel to that of Covid-19, loneliness is an issue often relegated to the lives of the elderly. As the things that were once pillars of daily life – lectures, bars, friend’s houses – remain off-limits, research has shown that people under thirty experience some of the highest levels of loneliness as a result of this ongoing isolation.

Many of the listed risk factors for experiencing loneliness are of particular prominence in students’ lives. People who live alone are of course more likely to feel lonely, something that many students are experiencing for the first time as travel restrictions prevent their flatmates from returning. With outside socialisation so strictly limited, an absence of a household to provide support leaves many vulnerable.

Those who do not feel a strong sense of belonging where they live are also more likely to feel lonely. This is likely a recognisable feeling for students who may have moved to Edinburgh during tiered restrictions and have not yet had the chance to find grounding in the city. Alternately, many are living back at home after an extended time away and finding such an adjustment to be a difficult and lonely experience.

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Strained familial relationships, care responsibilities and differential need to shield from the virus all amplify loneliness; for many, these are the realities of lockdown. A lack of certainty for the future makes quarantine increasingly challenging, something that has defined this year for everyone but has perhaps been particularly disorienting for young people facing formative decisions for their adult lives.

Though socialising can be facilitated virtually, so much of the intimacy and support of real life conversations remains missing. The disconcerting format of a group of friends on a laptop screen is often an unwelcome reminder of the abnormality of the present situation, and so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real barrier as more of life is conducted in this way. Digital exclusion is an under-addressed issue; those without reliable technology or internet connection lose out on social experiences as well as educational ones.

After another clear, yet somewhat sterner, letter from Colm Harmon this week warning of the consequences for students caught breaking lockdown rules, it is important to discuss the lasting impact of this prolonged period of social isolation.

If left unmanaged, loneliness poses a real public health concern in the long term – perhaps even greater for young people than Covid-19 itself. It can negatively impact relationships and reduce participation in one’s support networks, as well as turn people towards unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Though the university’s severe position on student breaches of lockdown restrictions may be understandable, empathetic discussion of the difficulties that may provoke such breaches is necessary.

This is not to say that this lockdown is not worth the lives it protects. Abiding by lockdown rules brings nearer the date they can be lifted – something everyone can support. Manageable loneliness in the short-term is well worth the safety that this period of social isolation will bring.

Issues arise, however, when such measures stretch into a longer timeframe, and services need to be in place to support students who will struggle. Some such support is already available, from virtual society meetings as a means to interact with people to counselling services to talk through personal experience, yet more is undeniably needed.

Mental health care is notoriously underfunded; if life is going to continue from a distance, the loneliness felt by young people must be considered a serious enough risk to warrant such care.

It is said often enough, but reaching out to others can be a lifeline.

Even one phone call can provide an invaluable sense of solidarity when one’s own company has become the norm. Student support services exist to be used, as well as organisations like the Breathing Space (accessible 6pm – 2 am at 0800 83 85 87) and Young Minds (YoungMinds.org.uk).

Hopefully, a future of reunions is not so far away, but the real impact of this period on the mental health of young people is perhaps yet to be understood.

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