“Truly alone for the first time in my life”
By iomh, on 19 July 2023
UCL Psychiatry MSc student Kangning Zheng’s research focuses on the experiences of loneliness among international students. This blog describes what her work reveals about the impact on students’ mental health.
Studying in another country might be an exciting prospect for many people but some international students can feel lonely during a period of study abroad. Transient loneliness at the start of a move to a new country is common and can be a positive stimulus to meet more people and establish oneself. However, some people can become chronically lonely, and this poses a threat to health and wellbeing. Loneliness is therefore an important consideration for policymakers in relation to the economic and social benefits of international students.
Our team of researchers at UCL and collaborators across the UKRI-funded Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network recently published a qualitative study exploring experiences of loneliness among international students. These findings, which painted a stark picture of disconnectedness among international students, have helped us to understand reasons for experiencing loneliness and suggest ways of preventing and addressing loneliness to improve the experience of overseas study.
In this study we analysed data from the BBC Loneliness Experiment and identified 521 respondents aged 16-40 years who were international students, using thematic analysis to analyse their free text responses to the question:
“We would like to know what loneliness means to you.”
Our team-based approach to the analysis brought a number of perspectives to our understanding of respondents’ responses, including those from a range of academic disciplines, as well as personal experiences of being an international student.
Our research team captured six main themes in the international students’ responses:
The negative psychological and social aspects of loneliness were a central theme, and these negative psychological aspects of loneliness included a sense of confusion, as well as feelings of sadness and restlessness. In terms of social aspects of loneliness, participants mentioned loneliness having worsened their social skills and hampered their social interactions with others.
The upsetting experience of being alone was a theme that described an uncomfortable awareness of one’s sense of isolation. People tended to overthink their loneliness, which was associated with sad feelings, and a strong awareness of the fact that they were alone. International students tend to live far from friends and family in their hometown, and when feeling lonely they would sense more acutely these great physical distances. What they also reported as finding upsetting was the sense that no one in their new setting was there for them.
Another theme captured the sense that their ability to make meaningful connections was disrupted. The students felt they were not able to communicate with the people around them and felt they had no one to trust. They felt an inability to fit into the social environment, a sense that the relationships that they currently had were not enough, and an urge for more connections. Many participants described that they did not feel wanted by others, and often felt rejected by others, therefore they felt they were worthless and often experienced being left out within social groups.
A fourth theme was the sense that they felt trapped by loneliness. The students described a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, believing it was hard to change and escape from the current situation. Some participants mentioned they experienced long-term loneliness, viewing a sense of entrapment from a longer-term perspective.
A fifth theme was an awareness of others’ stigmatised perceptions of their loneliness. The students believed that other people might think being lonely was shameful, and they were very sensitive to this. They were scared of being a burden on others when feeling lonely and could not truly express themselves due to social rules and pressures from others.
A final theme identified that some participants saw the positive side of loneliness, although usually this was in the context of also perceiving negative aspects. Some felt that loneliness was a prompt to make them become a better person, because it meant they could have more time to focus on their own values and be true to themselves. It was not always clear from the data we coded under this theme whether they were referring to their social isolation or their loneliness, and this warrants further investigation.
Our research study, in which the majority of participants were from Europe and sampled pre-COVID-19, found that loneliness is predominantly distressing for international students. Many accounts described the culture shock of trying to understand a new set of social rules, and not knowing where to seek help, precipitating and perpetuating feelings of loneliness. For some respondents, being immersed in their own company (and their own inner worlds) for a protracted period of time without reaching out for help or being invited to participate in social activities, seemed to engender a state of chronic loneliness, burdened by preoccupation with these uncomfortable feelings.
It is important that those leading higher education institutions, healthcare professionals (GPs or counselling services), teaching staff in schools and universities, and international students themselves are aware of these findings. This will increase an understanding of the distressing impact of loneliness, and the importance of preventing and addressing loneliness in the international student community.
Future studies should elicit international students’ suggestions as to how to prevent loneliness on commencing overseas study, particularly in the way that teaching and social activities are delivered, how students are prepared for the move to buffer the potential for culture shock, and how to signpost them to appropriate sources of support.
- Campaign to End Loneliness: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/
- Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health research network: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/psychiatry/research/epidemiology-and-applied-clinical-research-department/loneliness-and-social-isolation
- UCL Support and Well-being: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/support-and-wellbeing
- Student Space: https://studentspace.org.uk
- The UK Council for International Student Affairs: https://www.ukcisa.org.uk
- Shri 2021: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/how-overcome-feeling-isolated-international-student
- Study International 2022: https://www.studyinternational.com/news/social-isolation-international-students/
Kangning Zheng is a student on the MSc Clinical Mental Health Sciences course at UCL