Chronic loneliness: on and off campus

Former Dalhousie graduate student Emily White promotes her new memoir on living with chronic loneliness.

Emily White stands in the Senior Common Room at the University of King's College. Photo: Casey Dorrell

Emily White has spent years searching for ways to combat an all-encompassing sense of loneliness. She has gone to therapy, attempted to meet people by joining teams and attending group trips, and even sampled a naturopathic "anti-lonely potion."

The loneliness prevailed.

White moved from Toronto to Halifax in 1994 to study for a master's degree in English, and considers her loneliness to have been particularly acute during this period.

"I think that can be a really lonely time for people... if you arrive out of school and you've got this idea of what your social life is going to be and it doesn't work out like that, or you have a hard time connecting with people, you can wind up feeling quite lonely."

The former Dalhousie graduate student is author of the newly-published book, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude.

She was in Halifax yesterday promoting her memoir, which chronicles a life-long struggle with loneliness.

White weaves her personal experience with scientific research that shows loneliness to be a distinct psychological problem.

She argues that loneliness is a condition that, like depression, an individual may be predisposed to. Depending on one's circumstances, it can become a chronic problem.

"I think there is some research showing that it can occur independently of relationships...even sometimes within healthy relationships. The person who has the network of friends and the spouse is going to be a lot better off in responding to loneliness and getting a real grip on it- but that doesn't mean it can't happen."

Victor Day, director of counselling and psychological services at Dalhousie, says that loneliness could be considered a dissatisfaction with one's level of connectedness with others. He adds that individual satisfaction with one's relationships - or lack thereof -can range greatly from person to person.

"Some relatively isolated people are OK with it, and some very connected people are still dissatisfied. So, partly, loneliness is a form of wanting more than one has," Day says.

White says loneliness can cause physiological symptoms such as sleeplessness, increased blood pressure, a lowered immune system and social anxiety.

She describes a loneliness that began in childhood and continued throughout her life, becoming more severe when she was doing her master's and attending law school in Toronto.

White said while she did not seek out university mental health services when studying at Dalhousie, having a professional to talk to about one's loneliness on a regular basis could be beneficial for a student.

"I think a counselling department should think of loneliness among students as an issue that it should respond to."

Day says he has no statistics on the number of students who seek counselling due to loneliness.

While it is often a component in students' experience of anxiety, depression or interpersonal problems, he says it is not a condition that counselling services tracks separately.

"My personal impression is that loneliness is a common issue for many students, but is often related to their life circumstances and stage of life...my impression is it is more commonly an issue for students who either are not socially connected (because of being new here...or being shy), or who are socially connected and active in a superficial sense but who for various reasons do not develop a sense of satisfactory closeness with anyone."

The Dalhousie counselling services offers a number of group-therapy programs that address different psychological issues. Day says no group is offered for loneliness.

"My guess is that most students who are ‘just' lonely, but not notably anxious or depressed, don't seek counselling. If more students came specifically for that issue, we would consider a group program, but at present, there is not a significant demand for one."

Day says the closest group-counselling program that is offered is the Social Anxiety program. Students in that group often see loneliness as a symptom of their shyness or anxiety, but not a main issue in its own right.

White says those who are chronically lonely often need a professional intervention that will actively help them form relationships.

"So it's not just a notion that the lonely go out and meet someone. Someone else is getting involved and ensuring a positive outcome, which is very different from the notion that you should just go out and do something."

Ultimately for White, finding an intimate relationship with a partner has been the most effective in reducing loneliness. But she still says the condition will never completely dissipate.

"I feel that it's something that hasn't gone away, in the same way that people who struggle with depression feel that it's something they have to guard against, I see it as something that might continue to be a problem in my future."

 

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