By immediately requesting audience members to turn off and put away electronic devices, Professor Gina Barreca of the University of Connecticut’s English department stayed true to the nature of the night’s event; to call attention to the impact of social media on college campuses and on the epidemic of loneliness.
Thursday night’s panel in the Student Union Theater included keynote speaker Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Counseling and Mental Health Services director Dr. Betsy Cracco and UConn students Alondra Marmolejos and Derek Pan as they discussed how loneliness affects college-age students and how to help others who may be suffering from social isolation. The event was one of many in respect to Mental Illness Awareness week.
“I realize that it’s really easy to feel isolated on such a big campus,” Akshayaa Chittibabu, a seventh-semester sociology and biological sciences double major said. “I came here in an effort to figure out how to be a better community builder and how to make people feel more included in the community.”
Barreca discussed how loneliness does not just mean the absence of others’ presence, but also the absence of one’s own authentic presence.
She also brought up the importance of discussing the widespread problem of loneliness as there is no single nor easy solution.
“I think that loneliness is not that something that needs a quick fix,” Barreca said. “I think it needs to be discussed, addressed, defined and dismantled, not just buried.”
Dr. Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University and leading expert on the effect of loneliness on mental health, discussed an experiment that was conducted to see how test subjects would react to stressors.
“The effect of social support is profound...when there is either social support present or perceived to be available, they didn’t show this kind of response,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said, referring to how test subject’s blood pressure and heart would typically spike when they experienced stressors, but not with the idea of a social network available to them.
Dr. Holt-Lunstad continued to discuss possible reasons for the high rate of young adults suffering from loneliness and validated its existence. She mentioned that the effect of loneliness on mental and physical health is as detrimental as obesity or smoking 15 packs of cigarettes a day. She cited the role of technology in people’s lives constantly changing, affecting the way we communicate socially.
Marmolejos, a seventh-semester speech, language and hearing sciences and psychology double major, continued the panel by telling her most recent experience with loneliness. She discussed how losing her home in January to a fire caused her to lose the community of her town
and forced her into a rut. She did not understand why she could not recover while the rest of her family seemed resilient during the disaster. Sharing her story helped her come to terms with changing the negatives into positives in her situation.
Pan, a fifth-semester microbiology and psychological sciences double major, addressed his own experience with loneliness as an out of state student from California, and how “FOMO” (fear of missing out) plays a bigger part in students’ social isolation than they might think. He cites how awareness and formal peer support in the UConn community can help those other students who are suffering from the epidemic. He references the United Kingdom’s induction of a Loneliness Minister as inspiration that America can follow to truly tackle this very real situation affecting society.
Dr. Cracco drew attention to the formal peer support on campus, as director of CHMS. She spoke about how people sharing their stories ultimately aid in acknowledging their social isolation, and that consistency in tackling the issue will make a bigger impact than students realize.
Many UConn students in attendance appreciated the thoughtful discussion and how it can help students in the future.
“It’s kind of weird how common it is,” Erin Suech, a first-semester marketing major, said in reference to the loneliness epidemic on college campuses. “A lot of people don’t talk about it, so the fact that people are coming here to have a panel at UConn will definitely help get the ball rolling...the more conversation there is, the more change there will be.”
“I think there needs to be more [events] like this, and that more students need to come and actually hear about it,” Reva Shah, a first-semester business data analysis major said. “So many people don’t realize that they have all of these great resources.”
Hopefully, UConn students can continue the discussion about loneliness- possibly around a breakfast table, as Professor Barreca suggested.
“Why can’t students just sit and talk and have breakfast with each other?” she asked the audience. “There’s one less lonely person sitting by themselves.”
Hollie Lao is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.