I attempted to push it down when I first moved to Canada, whispering a sad goodbye as the people I’d known since birth disappeared behind airport lines. I tried to stop the tears, but instead shed thousands. For days on end, I relived fond memories in an attempt to fill the growing emptiness. My internal clock ticked as I kept wondering when I would see my family again, and if everything would be different when I did.
I felt fortunate to be living, growing, and working in Canada, yet I was in a constant state of worry… thinking I wouldn’t fit in, or that people wouldn’t like me, or that my accent would prevent people from wanting to get to know me. I fought to belong, grasping at any familiar signs, shared interests, or even just polite words.
The Problem with Loneliness
The problem with loneliness is that it’s a constant feeling of lack; an emptiness that cannot be filled by material things or well-meaning accolades. It is a primal social response; one that delights in self-pity and hopelessness. Loneliness is generally understood as a result of discrepancy between the social relationships people want and those they actually have (McCamley, 2018).
It is not unusual for international students to feel bouts of loneliness as they navigate new spaces, cultures, and expectations. In fact, it’s a natural part of the process. Although that doesn’t make the experience any less painful.
One article (Neto, 2021) suggests that living and studying abroad may involve the loss of social ties, separation from family, and the longing to build new friendships in the host country. Looking back at the past three or so years, it did take me considerable time to understand Canada’s varying socio-cultural norms. I wondered how best to approach people; it meant re-shuffling parts of myself and burying others so I could assimilate into a whole new environment.
Just when I thought I’d figured it out, the pandemic came along and proved me wrong. When the government announced there would be a nation-wide shut down in 2020, I was prematurely ecstatic. I no longer had to leave the comfort of my bed to attend classes. What I didn’t foresee was the undeniable, unshakable, feeling of loneliness that accompanied online learning.
Not leaving one’s dorm room for days is sure to leave anyone on edge, and according to an article by T.J. Hwang (Hwang, 2020), loneliness and social isolation were so prevalent across Europe, the USA, and China that it was described as a “behavioral epidemic.”
A Symptom of Social Isolation
Loneliness is a symptom of a much larger disease however, and that is social isolation. With COVID leaving our economies with more than just medical and fiscal anomalies, it has also led to widespread global social disconnection, which has driven rates of loneliness through the roof.
Loneliness can raise systolic blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease. It has also been linked to an increased risk of death from coronary artery disease. And these are just a few of the physical consequences.
According to Hwang and his colleagues, loneliness has a number of negative effects on mental health. It has been linked to decreased sleep time and increased wake time, which usually contributes to increased symptoms of depression, irritability, insomnia, and feelings of emptiness. Feelings that I, and probably a lot of you, have experienced.
Connection is Key
My recovery from loneliness started when my sisters joined me at the same university.
I still recall how happy I felt when I saw them scurry up to me from the yellow taxi that had parked outside what was now going to be OUR apartment. Along with priceless spices from Kenya, my mother also brought with her a profound ease, one that I had been desperately yearning for. I felt like I could breathe again when I saw my Papa holding a bouquet of flowers, delighted to greet me. The smile on his face alone was enough to shut out all the loneliness in the world.
Suddenly in that moment it dawned on me: it was because of the presence of the people I loved that my discomfort seemed to fade away with each passing second I spent with them. It was the undeniable sense of community. It was not just because I was with people that my loneliness seemed to disappear, it was also because of who those people were. It is mostly unsaid, that feeling of oneness when surrounded by others who truly know you… like being wrapped in a tight blanket. The little things, like sharing a joke from when you and your siblings were younger, or rewatching old movies together. In these moments with them I am not performing, not trying to achieve a synthetic, modified version of comradery. I am merely existing in a presence that understands me and loves me just as I am.
My sisters did not have to struggle as I did, I was responsible for ensuring that they didn’t have to. From showing them how to use transit, to opening their first bank accounts in Canada, their transition is, and will continue to be, easier than mine ever was. And I couldn’t be happier for them!
What are some solutions to the growing loneliness problem?
I found one article that mentioned a particularly interesting point with regards to dealing with feelings of loneliness for university students. The author insisted that it is important for university students to realize, especially with the increasing reliance on online learning, that sharing spaces that encourage collaboration serves as a potential solution to loneliness.
Here are a couple of scientifically proven tactics that help combat feelings of loneliness:
- Prioritizing sleep can improve mood and subsequently feelings of loneliness.
- Joining social support groups within the campus might be a great way to generate connection between students.
- Joining a club or sports team
- One study emphasized the role of sports courses in relation to improved overall wellness.
- Intercultural encounters whereby people of different cultures interact with one another.
- Perhaps by joining a diverse student union or heading down to a pub frequented by people of a different culture than your own.
A problem shared is half solved!
As an international student, it may seem frustrating and challenging at first to reach out and connect with new people. For that to work, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and share how you’re truly feeling and talk about what you need to feel welcome and involved.
My mother always tells me, a problem shared is a problem half solved!
Please find other resources online for international students and loneliness such as these ones:
Chrissie Ngarachu is a psychology student at Simon Fraser University who hopes to inspire real change within the African diaspora regarding mental health and well-being.