UK government launches campaign to tackle loneliness at universities | Universities

Millions of teenagers across Britain will arrive at university for the first time on Monday as freshers’ week begins.

Almost all will experience bouts of loneliness with nearly half being worried they will be judged if they admit to it, according to a sample of 1,000 students, collected by YouGov for the government.

To try to tackle the issue, the minister for loneliness, Stuart Andrew, has launched an awareness campaign. Partnering with the charity Sporting Wellness, Student Radio Association, Student Roost and Student Minds, he wants students to open up and talk to each other.

“Going to university can be the biggest transition young people have faced,” he said. “We want them to enjoy their experience at university and excel in their education so we’re highlighting that it will help them to speak to other undergraduates about their feelings.”

The government has said that tackling loneliness across the UK is a priority. Since 2018, it and its partners have invested over £80m in the issue, including over £34m in reducing loneliness caused by the pandemic. And £3.6m has been invested in Student Space, a mental health and wellbeing online platform offering online mental health support to all students in England and Wales until 2026.

The campaign has been welcomed by Robin Hewings, the programme director of the Campaign to End Loneliness. “There is real value in this campaign,” he said. “Chronically lonely students are more likely to say that their courses are bad value for money and their expectations have not been met they are about twice as likely to be considering withdrawing. Demographically, chronically lonely students are more likely be LGBTQ+, from DE social groups and females.” Concrete action, he said, “is largely best done by universities.”

But Andrew’s campaign has been criticised by other experts and students for being tokenistic, pointing to funding for the campaign, which comes from the 2023 to 2024 marketing budget of £445,000.

Paul Crawford, professor of health humanities at the School of Health Sciences at Nottingham University and a director at the Institute of Mental Health, said: “Loneliness has become a popular notion for politicians to talk about but it’s rarely followed by a promise of real money,” he said. “This campaign seems to be about creating something without any infrastructure because all that has been destroyed by government cuts.

“This campaign conveniently ignores the fact that the opportunity for these young people to meet and learn how to build relationships in their childhoods vanished when their libraries, youth centres, swimming pools were shut, and their public spaces became less well-maintained and less welcoming under the government policy of austerity,” he added.

“If I was a young person, I would feel this campaign wasn’t actually about me. I would think it’s about managing trends in political debates and concerns,” he added.

Dr Katie Wright-Bevans, a lecturer in psychology at Keele University, who has written about undergraduate loneliness, said that “anything that places responsibility on the individual to connect with others, without any meaningful infrastructure supporting that connection, is dangerous because it risks exacerbating existing loneliness and perpetuating a sense of blame.

“It’s frustrating when politicians come out with these platitudes and place responsibility on the individual to do something about what is fundamentally a community ill and not an individual ill,” she added.

Georgia Brakespear agreed that intervention requires investment in social and community level initiatives rather than “tokenistic attempts to advise individuals to simply connect with others”.

A music therapist who researched and published the paper Young Adults Dealing With Loneliness At University after she suffered loneliness as an undergraduate, Brakespear asked how the campaign supports those suffering loneliness but who can’t talk to others or join a society or club.

“I think this campaign could make students feel more angry than supported,” she said. “The government is recognising the situation but all they’re offering is something that conveniently happens to be completely free for them and requires no more commitment than a few speeches. That isn’t going to provide a long-term solution.”

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But Dr Emily Long, who is working on an ESRC-funded project exploring loneliness and wellbeing among young adults, said the campaign was “a bit of a double-edged sword”.

“On the one hand, talking about loneliness, acknowledging it as a problem, and working to reduce the stigma for young people/students is very helpful,” she said.

“But on the other hand, loneliness isn’t an individual issue, and I’d be hesitant to pursue an agenda that puts the responsibility directly on young people themselves through strategies to improve social skills, for example. From our research, we know that close, supportive relationships matter for loneliness, so simply increasing social contact – by having students talk to each enough – isn’t enough.”

Chloe Field, NUS vice-president for higher education, said the campaign was the latest example of the government “using mental health as a buzzword without doing anything practical about it.”

“This is very basic level advice,” she said. “Students talk to each other all the time. The problem is that there’s no one to go to for counselling and there’s no therapy because of a crumbling NHS – and now university is so expensive that students have to work long hours in precarious part-time jobs, often late into the night after their studies. They’ve got no time to socialise and have fun. It’s no surprise they’re lonely.”

The minister’s 10 point plan for reducing loneliness

  • Spend time helping other people, such as volunteering with student groups or by offering a regular conversation to someone feeling isolated

  • Keep in touch with friends and family over the phone

  • Arrange something fun to do with your current friends

  • Join a club or society at university to connect with others who have similar interests

  • Do things you enjoy, such as playing sport, reading or listening to music

  • Be open to everyone, as university is a great place to meet people from all different backgrounds

  • Remember some people only share the good things happening to them on social media so try and avoid comparison

  • Talk to someone you trust about how you feel

  • Get in touch with the university’s student services about the welfare and support it can provide

  • Remember that others may be feeling similar, so you are not alone

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