Loneliness On Campus

By Zach Broeren

[Photo Credit: Minh Tran ‘24]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most important issues that young adults have faced is an ever increasing crisis of mental health. Social isolation and living life online have been detrimental to young Americans, so much so that CDC reported that there was a 31% increase in the number of mental health-related emergency room visits for Americans aged 12-17 from 2019 to 2020. This begs the question: how are Denisonian students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation and loneliness?

In the February 2022 survey, we asked Denison students to rank how lonely they were this semester on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 was not lonely at all and 100 was the most lonely. Denisonians answered the question with responses falling all over the place. And it’s not yet clear what this means – does a higher score equate to fewer friends or does it mean that the friends you have know you less well? Overall, the mean loneliness score of a Denison student for February 2022 was 47/100.

Is loneliness a valid measure of social isolation? We also asked how many people (from 0-10) they could turn to in order to borrow $20, get a set of notes from class, etc. When added all together, there is a very clear decrease in the number of people respondents claim they could turn to in case they needed something. This is quite unsurprising; you can generally expect people who are more lonely to have fewer friends, since that is what being lonely is all about. The difference is so staggering, that those who selected 0 through 10 loneliness reported having 23 friends (out of 40) they could rely on, while those who selected 90 to 100 loneliness only had 14 friends they could rely on. It is important to note that this does not mean that those who are the loneliest have no friends – 14 is greater than 0 by a long shot.

You know you have a true friend when they have your back – they’ll vouch for you. Are lonely people less likely to be put in that situation? As noted in my previous article on vouching, there were some changes that needed to be made to our question to better understand how vouching occurred on Denison’s campus. One of these was to see how many times a respondent reported a friend asking them to vouch for them. That change is particularly useful to see if people who are more lonely are asked less to vouch.

Breaking from the trend observed with the above graph, vouching may be independent of loneliness – there’s no relationship between them. Perhaps people may get desperate and ask whoever they know to vouch for them if they were in trouble, not just their close friends. And this may signal that our loneliness measure is more about how well people know you than how many friends you have.

So far, it appears that there are some identifying factors (# of friends) that can be indicative of loneliness; are demographics another identifier of loneliness? One possibility is that minority groups are more lonely, but there are no statistically significant differences between men and women, nor by race. This is not to say that they are exactly the same; women reported being slightly more lonely in every racial group except Blacks, and whites generally reported (slightly) lower levels of loneliness than non-whites.

Loneliness on campus is a non-ending problem that has only seemed to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is not to say that we all became equals in suffering from loneliness, rather there is a wide spread of responses for how lonely one reports they are. Unsurprisingly, there was a negative correlation between the amount of social support one had access to and how lonely they felt, but when looking at how many times a friend had asked them to vouch, there was little correlation. The most important thing I believe I can leave you the reader with is this: make sure to check on people in your life and see how they’re doing.

Zach Broeren is a Junior at Denison University who is pissed about the Ohio weather, despite living here for 20 years.

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