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"I’m miserable and I feel that my life and my energy has been sucked up entirely by CMU:" dealing with loneliness on campus

Young adults across college campuses are suffering from chronic loneliness, a hidden and often misunderstood condition. A growing body of research has found loneliness to contribute to premature death, one study suggesting loneliness being eqivilent to smoking smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It impairs people’s cognition, creativity, sleep, mental health, and even their immune systems.

The Life@CMU Project, which concluded this year, found that loneliness rates at Carnegie Mellon were at levels similar to other schools, with students showing consistently high levels of loneliness that remained unchanged throughout the study.

Last month, on an anonymous Facebook confession page a Carnegie Mellon student posted, “I’m an upperclassman. Despite all the time I’ve spent here, I still feel completely alone... My grades are good, I’m on the ‘track’ to a great job, but I’m miserable and I feel that my life and my energy has been sucked up entirely by CMU and by my classes. All I want is to talk with someone, to get close to the few people I find interesting, but somehow I never do.”

Loneliness is an experience and a feeling that can be described as being unseen, unloved, or disconnected. Carnegie Mellon Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) executive director Shane Chaplin described it as “one of the most terrible things that can happen to a human being.”

There are various ways to describe how we think about social connections. Last year, at a forum on the loneliness epidemic, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described the ways we can address loneliness as strengthening our connections in three “bins”. The first bin is about connections to the people we know closely and love; the second bin is about connections with the people we interact with in the world such as classmates, coworkers, or strangers; the third bin is about connection with ourselves and our self-worth.

Research David Creswell, Associate Professor of Psychology, published earlier this year, found that among his study’s participants, mindfulness training reduced loneliness and increased social interactions. “When we are practicing mindfulness we can become aware of instances where we feel disconnected or we feel alone … and then to be able to reconnect with, ‘What do I need in this moment’, and, ‘What do I need in this space?,’” says Angela Lusk, Program Director for Wellness Initiatives at Carnegie Mellon.
Lusk hopes that offering students access to services such as the Headspace meditation app will create scaffolding for students to begin utilizing mindfulness, and then offer them deeper ways to connect with campus resources.

When speaking on how CaPS can help students struggling with social connections, Chaplin said, “a lot of the challenges we see in students have to do with interpersonal relationships … when you work with other students in a safe environment, then you’re learning how you appear in front of other people, and you’re able to get that immediate feedback.” CaPS has recently been increasing the number of group workshops and therapy options.

CaPS will also be starting a program called Let’s Talk to go out onto the campus and counsel students in a more accessible way. “We are trying to find different ways to reach out to the community to make ourselves more visible,” Chaplin said.

Student organizations dedicated to supporting mental health are also springing up on campus. Here For You is a new student group that focuses on the lack of mental health support in campus culture by holding discussion meetings on mental health topics, holding campus-wide events, and helping students access support resources. A chapter of Active Minds, a national organization seeking to spread mental health awareness, is also expected to start up at Carnegie Mellon in the spring.

Efforts are happening within specific colleges as well. Dietrich College will begin teaching a course called “Hack Your Life” next year. The Mellon College of Science (MCS) will continue to run their first-year required course, “EUREKA! Discovery and Its Impact.” MCS Associate Dean Maggie Braun explains that the course works “as a way to help students transition to Carnegie Mellon with a big focus of the course on the habits of successful scientists and mathematicians…. We have topics related to wellness and mindfulness … and we talk about sense of belonging.” Braun says that MCS also provides students with wellness courses that they take during their upperclassmen years.

There are also non-curricular differences between colleges. The School of Drama has a mentor program of senior “Bigs” guiding freshmen “Littles.” “My Big is one of my closest confidants here. She’s wonderful, and I think that could be really helpful because it’s like an automatic friend who can guide you through everything … to have a peer who’s been through exactly what you have is a blessing,” said Lucy Hall. a first-year in the School of Drama. The school also has a Wellness Advocates group that Associate Head Dick Block described as “serving as an information resource within the School of Drama and as a liaison between the students and all of those aforementioned [student support] resources.”

The beginning of one’s first year is a key time to form relationships. As Chaplin says, “you have people coming in separating from one of their biggest sources of connection ... those first few days and weeks we know are key for connection; if that fails and you don’t find a home or group to connect with, that is when you begin to risk that chronic isolation.”

Amy Yearwood is the Director of Summer Studies and Strategic Initiatives, and has led the (re)CHARGE Program, which offers first-years and sophomores the opportunity to connect with the Carnegie Mellon community over a summer session. From her experience with students coming to (re)CHARGE, “for the first time in our lives we’re meeting people who come from very different situations from us, and that’s exciting … but it also is a little terrifying and it can be hard to make those initial relationships.”
Yearwood said “a lot of students I met were so involved in high school. Maybe played three varsity sports, they come here as a [first-year], but they didn’t choose to be an athlete so all of a sudden that part of their life that’s been huge since they were five years old is gone … these things have been consuming your life for years and all of a sudden you come here and you’re just a student.”

There’s also a sense that Carnegie Mellon’s work culture might be influencing student loneliness, causing students to opt for transactional relationships over deeper emotional ones. Brandon Bohrer, a computer science student in the Here For You student organization stated that many students have “trained themselves into this regimen of ‘I’m just going to destroy myself until I have all the degrees and then real life is something that starts later and I’ll just punish myself until then’. No, you’re already living real life.”

Some say that the amount of work in students’ lives is hindering them from forming deeper social connections. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described today’s omnipresence of work as keeping us from forming the deeper connections we crave. Creswell said his perception is that “we’re in this achievement culture here — ‘All it should be about is the work’ — and I think we’re needing to find better ways to engage each other.”

The anonymous student who posted on the confession page also seemed to speak to how the Carnegie Mellon work culture affects students’ connections. “A lot of this is my own fault, but much of it isn’t. If I had less busywork, if I was under less pressure to keep up my GPA, if people wanted to talk about things other than classwork and exams, perhaps things would be different. Maybe if I had the courage to just talk to people, things would be different.”