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A lone female college student stands in the background of the photo. In the foreground, three students, their photos blurred, suggesting they have places to go, walk past her.

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Efforts to support student mental health in higher education continue to grow, but are still far from adequate. A key next step, in our view, is to focus more on loneliness. Loneliness is one of the most important factors influencing mental health, and there are many opportunities to reduce its toll on students, as well as faculty and staff, in college and university environments. The ideas presented here are based on our collective experiences working with hundreds of institutions of higher education on both research and practice related to student wellbeing and success.

What is Loneliness?

As a starting point, it is important to discuss what loneliness is and is not. Loneliness is not a disease. Nor is it necessarily related to the number of social contacts we have, or how often we engage with them. It has to do with how we engage with others, the quality of those engagements, and how satisfying and fulfilling they are to us. It is a brain state, experienced subjectively and emotionally as a sense that desired, reliable and meaningful connections to others are not available.

Despite not being an illness itself, loneliness is associated with an increased risk of mental and physical health challenges, as well as a reduction in quality of life and flourishing. In some ways, we can think of loneliness as connected to a basic human need, much like food, shelter and safety. Loneliness occurs when the perceived need for satisfying social connection is not met.

As another point of context, we need to acknowledge that it is normal and healthy to be alone at times. The goal is not for everyone to be connected to others at all times. Comfort with being alone is important but challenging in the current social media and popular culture environment.

Loneliness has multiple dimensions. These different dimensions can overlap, but are important to recognize as different strategies are required to address them effectively. Psychological loneliness is feeling a lack of friends, or companions, with no one to trust, rely on or confide in. Societal loneliness is feeling systematically excluded or marginalized because of some specific trait or condition perceived by others (race, gender identity, income level, disability, etc). Existential or spiritual loneliness is a feeling of disconnection or limited attachment to the broad world of human experience and meaning, often coinciding with the lack of a sense of purpose or direction in one’s life. Clearly, the strategies to support students who lack satisfying relationships with others may differ significantly from those required when the source of discomfort is uncertainty about whether their lives have intrinsic value or consequence, or whether many around them are judging and rejecting them because of their social or cultural identity.

Why Is Loneliness So Important for Student Mental Health?

Many students in higher education are feeling high levels of loneliness, and this is undoubtedly contributing to the troubling levels of mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety and suicide risk. In the 2022–2023 Healthy Minds Study, a national online survey of student mental health, 19 percent of students report they often lack companionship, 22 percent often feel left out, and 25 percent often feel isolated from others. Among these students reporting feelings of loneliness in the Healthy Minds Study, well over half report significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, or have seriously thought about attempting suicide.

What is happening on campus is also happening within a broader societal environment of accelerating social disconnection and loneliness. A recent advisory on loneliness by the U. S. Surgeon General outlines how loneliness has become a major public health challenge in the U.S. These broader societal factors make it more difficult to reduce loneliness and underscore the urgency to act quickly and effectively. Stressors affecting loneliness include a rapidly changing post-graduation employment environment, growing political polarization, especially in an election year, economic insecurity at the individual and institutional level, increasing levels of military conflict internationally, and rising levels of global climate anxiety.

Almost everyone experiences loneliness to some degree and from time to time, along with the possibility that at some point their loneliness might become more intense, sustained and unhealthy. For a number of reasons, the college experience is associated with that heightened risk, with evidence that it is increasing, with disproportionate risk in certain groups. Marginalized populations of students tend to experience the most loneliness, as we have seen in the Healthy Minds data. Students of color, LGBTQ+ students and other groups often experience systematic discrimination and exclusion in many settings. The intersectionality of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and strained economic resources (to name a few factors) can exacerbate the feelings of loneliness on campuses. Systematic exclusion and discrimination can lead to internalized feelings of guilt or shame, which has been referred to as “racial battle fatigue” for people of color.


Most campus communities have task forces and strategic planning initiatives around student mental health, and these efforts should center on loneliness and social connection as well as on the related issues of diversity and equity noted earlier. Efforts to support student mental health should acknowledge the universality of loneliness and avoid setting unrealistic and misdirected expectations that loneliness can be completely eliminated. Rather, it’s prolonged or chronic loneliness that needs to be recognized as a health threat, destigmatized and discussed, and navigated individually and institutionally.

To be fully effective, efforts to address loneliness and foster a sense of connection and belonging need to be linked to the broader articulation of the enduring values that institutions and communities stand for, and included routinely in internal and external communications. Doing so lays the groundwork for expanding efforts at all institutional levels to curate a “culture of connection” (as called for in the Surgeon General’s advisory) in ways that align with and build on traditional institutional commitments to educational excellence.

Addressing loneliness effectively requires customized attention to the levels at which it occurs, ranging from the individual to the interpersonal to groups and the communities at large. At an individual level, addressing loneliness requires a comfort with oneself. It is difficult to connect with other people unless one feels comfortable with a sense of identity generated internally and not simply in response to external expectations and cues. Exploring oneself can happen through a variety of mindfulness-oriented activities including meditation, contemplative time spent in nature, and creative outlets such as visual arts, music, writing and dance. It is also important to take an equity-centered approach or framework to addressing loneliness and promoting social connections among students. This could involve further discussions on the creation of targeted programs and interventions tailored to marginalized student populations, centering their unique challenges and experiences and encouraging institutions to design inclusive initiatives that foster a sense of belonging and connection.

Of course, these broad frameworks and principles must translate into tangible actions through specific programs and initiatives. At present, there are few loneliness interventions with clearcut evidence of effectiveness, but there have been many promising developments in recent years. We need to implement more widely the programs and interventions that show promise in addressing loneliness and social connections, and evaluate outcomes as rigorously as possible to increase our certainty about what works best.

One of us, Dr. Jeremy Nobel, has developed an initiative, Project UnLonely, that is making promising headway in campus communities throughout the nation. This initiative is raising awareness and understanding about loneliness among students and others in higher education settings, and is fostering social connections through the Campus Colors and Connection program. This program uses a group format and guided visual art-making to help individuals explore their own feelings and make meaningful connections with others in their communities. We can personally attest to the power of this program, recently made available to all students at orientation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, where one of us (Joe Behen) is dean of the Student Wellness Center. Project UnLonely also offers Campus Front Row, a program that provides short films on topics such as loneliness, connection and belonging that can be screened by small groups, followed by group discussions.

ProjectConnect is another promising program that uses a group format to foster meaningful connections among students and others in colleges and universities. This program, developed by Jessica Gifford, is a multi-session curriculum that takes groups of five to seven participants through a series of questions and activities proven to build connections. Like the Colors and Connection program, this model has the advantage of scalability and sustainability nationally while also allowing each institution to customize according to local context and needs.

There are also digital programs addressing loneliness. An app called Nod was developed by Grit Digital Health and the Hopelab to help reduce loneliness and its harmful impacts among students. The app uses principles of positive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing and mindful self-compassion. A trial of the app with 221 first-year college students showed promising results among students with higher mental health risk.

Recognizing the increasing amount of time spent by students online, approaches to loneliness should also promote the healthy use of social media and digital platforms. Guidelines and support for limiting the recreational use of social media in performative and comparative ways can be helpful. Simultaneously, higher education institutions will need to innovate and test interventions that support digital health literacy and foster healthy digital connections that counterbalance the often toxic or unsupportive online social environments omnipresent in the digital arena.

Another important aspect of addressing loneliness on campus is recognizing that it is not just students who deal with this challenge. Academic staff and faculty, both groups critical to effectively addressing loneliness in students, are themselves often lonely. Project UnLonely has customized a version of its Campus Colors and Connection program to support faculty and staff, many dealing with high levels of stress and burnout themselves. More efforts along these lines are needed.

Greater investment in efforts to address loneliness in higher education will have many benefits for the well-being and flourishing of students, faculty and staff. These efforts fit with a growing recognition that preventive, public health approaches to student mental health are needed alongside the expansion of clinical services. Progress will not be easy, but it starts with a greater appreciation for the central role of loneliness and social connections in the health and success of higher education communities.

Daniel Eisenberg, Ph.D., is a professor of health policy and management at University of California, Los Angeles, and is the founder and a principal investigator of the Healthy Minds Study.

Joe Behen, Ph.D., is dean of the Wellness Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a clinical psychologist.

Jan Collins Eaglin, Ph.D., is a national senior advisor for the Steve Fund.

Zainab Okolo, Ed.D., is a senior vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations at The Jed Foundation.

Jeremy Nobel, M.D., leads Project UnLonely, an initiative of The Foundation For Art & Healing, and serves on the faculties of the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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