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Help your college freshman combat a potential danger: loneliness

Dr. Marcia Morris
Dr. Marcia Morris
Published Aug. 20, 2015

Your child is starting her freshman year of college in a week or two, and you feel compelled to hug her, hold her, tell her how much you love her and warn her of certain dangers to avoid in the college world.

Walking alone at night, binge drinking, getting separated from friends at a party, accepting a drink from someone she doesn't know. We warn our daughters and sons of actions to avoid, and fortunately most students do not meet with catastrophe. But we need to pay attention to a more common, distressing and potentially dangerous occurrence: loneliness.

How could anyone be lonely on a college campus, surrounded by thousands of students and hundreds of faculty? Easily.

College life has changed radically since you and I attended college. A 2014 UCLA survey showed that freshmen have far less face-to-face contact than in the past, with only 18 percent of students having face-to-face contact with other students at least 16 hours per week, versus 37.9 percent in 1987.

Part of this lack of social contact may be fueled by social media. More than one-fourth of freshmen surveyed in 2014 (27.2 percent) spent at least six hours per week on online social networks, up from 18.9 percent in 2009.

As a psychiatrist who has worked with college students for the past 21 years, I am privy to many stories of loneliness. More and more, freshmen are describing not forming a friend group with people in the dorm, classes or cafeteria, places where my generation would bond with people all the time. It seems students have to work extra hard to find their social circle, and by the end of freshman year most do, through fraternities and sororities, clubs, sports and religious organizations. Increasingly, colleges are providing more activities specifically for freshmen to help these relationships form.

But if these relationships don't develop as quickly as your child anticipated, and you get frantic phone calls from your daughter in September or October that she does not fit in, that she has never felt this lonely, that she wants you to come and get her, you as parents can take actions to ease the transition and help her adapt.

Parental involvement is essential, as the dangers of chronic loneliness are significant. A 2009 study of freshmen found that loneliness was an independent risk factor for suicidal thinking. Loneliness is likely to increase feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as high-risk behaviors like binge drinking and drug use. Of greatest concern, several studies, including one out of Brigham Young University in 2015, showed that loneliness increased mortality across all age groups. Loneliness in general is a health hazard, in the long term raising the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A strong campus social network is essential to wellness.

How can you help if you get a tearful call at 2 a.m. from your homesick freshman? Offer empathy, love, hope and reassurance. But also have continuing conversations, preferably during the daytime, about how to improve social health.

Here are some well-studied methods to help reduce loneliness:

Increase social interactions: Many campuses have hundreds of extracurricular activities, anything from debate team to board game club to surfing (at least in Florida). Joining even a few clubs will greatly expand your child's social circle.

Enhance social support: Encourage your child to seek out help on campus. The Dean of Students Office usually has success coaches, freshman advisers or case managers who, in addition to providing advice about activities and classes, can be sources of emotional support for freshmen. Meeting with a campus therapist also can help your child bridge the loneliness gap until more connections are made.

Improve social skills: Most campuses, and many therapists in college towns, offer different kinds of group therapy that enhance social skills. If your child does not want to do therapy, she can still practice social skills by setting goals like speaking up at least once in each class, making small talk at a party or trying to make at least two close friends by the end of the year. The important thing is for your child to continue to try out new behaviors and see what works.

When you drop your child off at college, be optimistic that she will make a great group of friends. If she does not, you as parents can help and encourage the steps necessary to establish a social support system that will be a true safety net during the college years.

Dr. Marcia Morris is a psychiatrist at the University of Florida Counseling and Wellness Center, where she has treated college students for the past 21 years. Her areas of specialty include depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

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