Students are lonelier than ever

by Mariyam Khaja


On a warm Friday evening in early September, the city around Fatima Khan is alive. People spill onto the streets, milling about with friends, or head to a bar to grab a drink. Many of her peers, no doubt, are off doing the same.


But she, inside her dorm room, lays nestled with her laptop underneath brown-and-red plaid covers. On tonight’s agenda: a couple of episodes of Family Guy with a side of hot Cheetos. After that she might call her mom, and surf Netflix for the next hour, landing on either The Office or Black Mirror (if she’s in the mood for it). All this is a strategic waiting game for sleep, her only constant companion for the night.


Her weekdays parallel those of others her age—classes at Ryerson University and shifts at work. But Khan is also lonely: she sits alone in lecture, eats lunch alone, walks to and from classes alone. Her university experience is marked by few friends and a lot of free time.


“There’s not really a lot I have to look forward to,” she says, rolling a wad of tissues between her hands, in slow, cyclical motions. “After you study, or watch your shows, or eat, there’s not much else you can do.” Some days, the only people she talks to is the takeout delivery guy, or the cashier at Longo’s.


Loneliness is not a new phenomenon, but one that’s seen a resurgence in recent years. It’s prompted a host of unconventional responses: Ontario doctors are offering “social prescriptions” as part of a pilot project to combat loneliness in patients, the U.K. appointed its first loneliness minister in 2018, and even big pharma has researched pills to chemically alter the brains of lonely people.


While it touches different swaths of people, loneliness is a shared experience heightened on post-secondary campuses. A 2016 survey across Canadian universities found that nearly 70 per cent of students felt lonely throughout the school year.


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