A Conversation with Psychology Professor Celine Ko on Loneliness among College Students

by | Feb 8, 2021 | Cover Story, Culture

Loneliness in a Crisis

Without study rooms to rent or dining hall conversations, what is the traditional college experience? Residential halls are at half-capacity and no live music emits from the Chapel. Even if students cannot see the desolate world created by the pandemic, they feel it.

A loneliness crisis has emerged among young adults in step with the spread of COVID-19. Studies have revealed that almost half of 18-24 year-olds are experiencing loneliness in the midst of social distancing measures.

Throughout college, young people forge social connections vital to their development as emerging adults, including close friendships and the opportunity to date. Meaningful relationships play an essential role in shaping identity during this period; however, isolation and quarantine have made connecting with others an obstacle, negatively impacting college students’ mental health.

Consequently, young people are notably more vulnerable to experiencing loneliness as well as other adverse mental health effects within the context of the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the CDC in June, 62.9% of adults between 18 and 24 years-old are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression during the pandemic, and was reported as a considerable increase from the same period in 2019.

Loneliness is defined by the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry as “the painful emotional experience of discrepancy between actual and desired social contact.”

This discrepancy can be experienced in a variety of relationships, from platonic to romantic ones.

Identifying Loneliness and its Causes in Young Adults

The Redlands Bulldog had the opportunity to speak with Professor and Chair of the psychology department, Dr. Celine Ko, about loneliness and how to cope with it.

“Acute stress related to the pandemic caused spikes of stress among students. There’s an ongoing sense of uncertainty and unpredictability because of the pandemic,” she stated.

College students find themselves more susceptible to experiencing mental health problems in times of uncertainty than older adults due to limited life experience. 

As people age, “[they] have a bigger view of life because the smaller things are not as disruptive,” Ko commented. Age brings a larger perspective on the world that can be difficult to construct as a young adult. As students become older and encounter other major events throughout their lives, it becomes easier to contextualize crises through a wider lens.

Ko goes on to mention the negative impacts the 24-hour news cycle has on students’ well-being, stating, “There’s research to support having so much information in your hands [as being] detrimental. When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of everything happening in the world.”

Citing the propensity for news to overwhelm students on social media and other platforms, Ko theorized that such exposure may “impact how [their] brain[s] process things and how [they] connect with people.”

However, it is important to note not all students are experiencing loneliness or a decline in their mental health. Ko mentions, “I’ve had some students report that it’s actually been really nice.” For some, “life has [been] simplified in a lot of ways … and made it a little less stressful for students.”

For many, the pandemic has created room to breathe and the ability to deepen preexisting relationships with friends and family.

Notwithstanding, almost half of all young adults are struggling to overcome the void left by the intimacy that college brings, whether it be through parties, club meetings, or dating.

There is agony in the stillness of the crisis–pain in the acknowledgment that there are experiences we, as students, will never recapture. And so the question arises: how do we find contentment in stagnant chaos?

Coping Strategies in a COVID World

Professor Ko suggests nurturing one’s social support system. “In health, there’s physical and mental health. One of the biggest outcomes of good physical and mental health is social support.”

Psychologists define social support as the perception of being cared for and loved by others. This emotional connection can come from parents, friends, a partner, and even pets.

“If you’re having a bad day,” Ko prompts, “is there a person you can call? Are you a part of something that allows you to feel like you’re a part of something bigger?”

There are various types of social support, such as emotional and physical action support, however the underlying theme is the belief that someone will be there in a time of need.

To create a stronger social support system, Ko recommends reciprocating these actions for others to help better understand them. Initiate a conversation with a friend you miss the next time they post on social media, or perhaps attend a virtual meeting of an organization you’re interested in. A level of vulnerability and openness is required to bridge the gap between perceived and desired contact.

Other coping mechanisms to combat loneliness include meditating, going out into nature, and partaking in activities that engage a sense of creativity, such as drawing, writing, or playing music.

Furthermore, Professor Ko inquires students to keep connecting with one another online, so long as social media isn’t negatively affecting their mental health.

In regard to students’ romantic lives, which have been retroactively put on pause for those interested in dating, Ko states, “There’s no rush to [fall into a relationship] not because we want to, but because we have to.” 

She advocates for using this time to instead become acquainted with oneself, while also undergoing a cost-benefit analysis of meeting new people in ways that abide by CDC guidelines.

“That is tough,” Ko confesses. “I can barely see my friends, let alone meet strangers and connect with them.” Similar to numerous other challenges students’ have had to face due to the pandemic, the solution requires a level of creativity.

Chatting through a Facetime call or having an outdoor picnic while masked and six-feet apart is always an option. Ultimately, these are personal choices that depend on how each person prioritizes finding romantic fulfillment.

Where the Frame Widens

In the absence of in-person activities, Hall of Letters remains vacant and Commencement will once again be held virtually this year. The present has become an unimaginable future.

And yet, we carry on. Our lives continue to unfold in spite of the circumstances. 

Loneliness, then, can be thought of as a paint stroke, a part of a series of experiences which create a vast picture. That picture paints our lives, and, as it enlarges, the strokes become indistinguishable. All that is left is an impervious piece, whole and intact.

Services from the Counseling Center can be found here, and their 24/7 Crisis Line can be reached at (909)-748-8960.

For guidance on self-care, Tulane University has created a collection of resources students anywhere around the world can use.

<a href="https://www.theredlandsbulldog.com/author/nadialathan/" target="_self">Nadia Lathan</a>

Nadia Lathan

Nadia is a third-year student studying International Relations and Economics. She has been a writer for The Bulldog since her Freshman year and became the News Section Editor in Spring 2020. She enjoys reading and drinking Dr. Pepper in her free time.

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