Your freshmen are lonely. Here's how to help.

Recent protests and contentious debates may be a loud indicator of student unrest, but there's a quieter sign of campus malaise: loneliness.

Students who feel emotionally disconnected to peers and the institution are more likely to both leave college and engage in self-destructive behaviors, writes Frank Bruni for the New York Times

For many of us, feeling isolated for a short time is an ordinary consequence of finding ourselves in a new and unfamiliar environment, he notes. But some incoming students may be surprised by how strong the reaction can be.

Brett Epstein, for example, recalls being unprepared for the solitude he felt his first night in a residence hall. The uncomfortable experience sent him into a "long battle with anxiety and depression," says the College of Charleston senior.

According to a recent survey by the American College Health Association, college students are especially susceptible to loneliness. Out of 28,000 college students surveyed, more than 60% reported feeling "very lonely" within the year prior to the study, and nearly 30% "felt very lonely" within the two weeks prior to the study.

Also see: Two ways to help first-generation students navigate your college's "hidden curriculum"

These feelings of isolation are often amplified by social media posts from peers cultivating an image of uninterrupted college fun, says Elizabeth Gong-Guy, psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fighting loneliness

Luckily for the lonely, institutions are adopting innovative approaches to help first-year students make friends, writes Bruni. For example, many colleges are revamping orientation to foster emotional bonds between students and the institution, he notes.

Others, like Goucher College, are redesigning residence halls to nudge freshmen to develop new relationships and avoid the feelings of loneliness that can lead them to leave, says President José Antonio Bowen.

To help students understand that their feelings of isolation are common, Bruni recommends amplifying the campus conversation about mental health. While we warn freshmen about the dangers of partying and weight gain, few are aware of the emotional challenges that can accompany the tricky transition to college, he notes.

We need to let them know that college has its ups and downs, and feeling lonely is normal, survivable, and more prevalent than they think, he writes (Bruni, New York Times, 9/6).

Find hidden pain points in your students' experience

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