Addressing Mental Health in Students: Loneliness, Isolation and Suicide Prevention

By Sarenka Smith

Learn more about mental health on high school and college campuses today by joining our upcoming Say It Brave On Campus series.

Loneliness and mental health challenges have become pervasive among today's college and high school students. The demanding academic environment, coupled with the pressures of social media and an increasingly competitive world, has created a breeding ground for feelings of loneliness.

“Loneliness is actually different from being alone,” says Landry Weatherston-Yarborough, LPC, CEDS-S, NCC, executive director at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center (ERC Pathlight). “In essence, being alone simply means that you are not with other people. Loneliness is an emotion, which describes a feeling of sadness or isolation that stems from lack of connection."

Researchers define loneliness as perceived social isolation, or the discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships. Loneliness has also been identified as the leading reason people seek counseling.

Studies indicate that loneliness is a significant predictor of suicidal ideation and behavior. A systematic review and meta-analysis of various studies suggests a meaningful connection between the two, providing evidence to support the idea that individuals who experience persistent loneliness are at a higher risk of developing suicidal ideation and engaging in suicidal behaviors.

This relationship emphasizes the importance of addressing feelings of loneliness in order to mitigate the risk of suicidal outcomes, and adds to the growing body of research that highlights the psychological and emotional factors that contribute to suicidal tendencies. This research underscores the need for targeted interventions and support mechanisms to address loneliness and reduce the associated risk of suicide.

Feeling lonely in college

Like so many others around the world, college students in the U.S. are increasingly struggling with stress and mental health issues. Pressures of academic life contribute to many college students experiencing a range of mood, anxiety and depressive conditions. 

The National Healthy Minds Study surveyed students at over 530 colleges and universities. The study found that 77% of college students need help for emotional or mental health problems, and a majority experienced a worsening of their emotional health after the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, a report published by Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health indicates the high prevalence of social anxiety and trauma among college students, in addition to the critical role college counseling centers play in supporting students with mental health concerns.

Despite being more connected than ever through technology, many students report feeling lonely and socially isolated. Social media platforms, while originally designed to connect people, can paradoxically exacerbate feelings of loneliness by fostering unrealistic social comparisons and a sense of “FOMO” (fear of missing out). Students may feel excluded or inadequate when seeing their peers appearing to lead “perfect” lives online.

Additionally, the transition from high school to college often involves leaving behind familiar support systems, including friends and family. The initial excitement of newfound independence can be quickly overshadowed by the reality of isolation, especially for students attending schools far from home. The lack of face-to-face interactions and a sense of belonging can compound feelings of loneliness.

Mental health in high school students

The academic demands placed on high school students can feel overwhelming. The pressure to excel academically, coupled with the fear of failure, can lead to heightened stress levels and compromised mental well-being. A 2019 survey by the American College Health Association found that over 60% of students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety within the past year.

Furthermore, the culture of competition prevalent in much of today’s educational system can foster a sense of constant comparison, eroding self-esteem and magnifying feelings of inadequacy. Students may not seek help for fear of appearing weak or incapable, perpetuating a cycle of isolation.

Six ways to address student mental health

  • Promote open conversations. Creating an environment where students feel comfortable discussing their feelings can help normalize the struggles they face. Schools and colleges can organize workshops, support groups and awareness campaigns to encourage open conversations about mental health.

  • Offer accessible resources. Schools can offer easy access to mental health resources, including counseling services and crisis helplines. Making these resources visible and readily available can reduce the stigma associated with seeking help.

  • Prioritize wellness education. Incorporating mental health and wellness education into the curriculum can help students develop coping mechanisms and emotional resilience. Teaching stress management techniques and the importance of self-care can empower students to prioritize their mental well-being.

  • Foster inclusivity. Building a sense of belonging and community is essential. Schools can organize clubs, events and activities that cater to diverse interests, allowing students to connect over shared passions.

  • Digital detox. Encouraging students to take periodic breaks from social media can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and reduce the negative impact of constant comparison. Embracing real-world connections can lead to more meaningful relationships.

  • Family and peer support: Parents, guardians and friends play a crucial role in supporting students' mental health. Encouraging open communication at home and fostering healthy friendships can provide a strong support network.

Loneliness and mental health struggles among college and high school students are complex issues that require a multifaceted approach. By fostering open conversations, offering accessible resources and promoting wellness education, educational institutions can play a pivotal role in addressing these challenges. In a world that often prioritizes achievement over emotional well-being, it is crucial to recognize that mental health is just as important as academic success.

Resources for students and campus professionals

As we work together to support students on high school and college campuses across the country – many of whom struggle with increased rates of isolation and loneliness – we hope you’ll join us for the 2023-2024 launch of Say It Brave on Campus.

National Mental Health Advocate Shannon Kopp, founder of Say It Brave, is no stranger to the challenges of high school and college mental health. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she listened to numerous students share about their secret struggles – particularly given the ongoing isolation during that time.

“We wanted to provide support that was more than a one-time event, support that could be life changing, support that would connect students with a diverse community of nonprofit organizations and mental health advocates making a real impact across the country,” explains Kopp. “That was the beginning of many discussions that led to the launch of Say It Brave On Campus.”

Kopp also speaks to her own lived experience as a mother who battled eating disorders and chronic depression throughout her life.

“I often wonder how my life might have been different if something like Say It Brave On Campus had come to my school when I was younger,” shares Kopp. “I think I would have sought community and support sooner, and felt less shame and stigma for having mental health challenges. That’s our hope for every student this program touches.”

Join the conversation on student mental health

On September 21, we are hosting a full-day virtual event, “Connecting the Dots: Conversations About Loneliness, Community, Isolation and Suicide Prevention.” Starting at 9:45 a.m. MT,  providers are eligible to earn up to 5.5 continuing education hours . The final session will feature a student panel discussion moderated by ERC Pathlight clinical director Landry Yarborough, LPC, CEDS, NCC. Joined by students from Black Mental Wellness, Morgan's Message, Only7Seconds and Robbie's Hope, the presentation “Alone in a Crowd: Exploring Loneliness and Its Impact on Student Well-Being ” will assess:

  • The differences between loneliness and being alone
  • The impact of loneliness and isolation on student mental health 
  • The critical importance of connection for depression and anxiety
  • The ways in which connection-related interventions can foster self-compassion

“For the 2022-2023 academic year, Say It Brave on Campus primarily served high school and college students. This year we’re excited to expand programming to serve entire high school and college communities, students, faculty, staff and mental health professionals alike,” says Wendy Foulds Mathes, PhD, director of academic programs and continuing education at ERC Pathlight.

Join us for an authentic and raw conversation as we ensure that students have access to critical education and resources needed to combat the effects of isolation and loneliness – and support community and connection.

Note: For each event, students can submit one-minute videos via Instagram that answer prompts on each event topic. Videos will be included in our presentations and distributed on social media platforms.

If you are hosting a watch party, please email [email protected] to let us know and receive any necessary event support. Due to the sensitive nature of the topics, we recommend a mental health provider attend and help coordinate your watch party.

Clinically reviewed by Landry Weatherston-Yarborough, LPC, CEDS-S, NCC.

Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and…

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