Fact Sheet: Loneliness on Campus

March 22, 2018

In response to the growing public health concern of social isolation and loneliness, the UnLonelyProject aims to broaden public awareness of the negative physical and mental health consequences of loneliness while also promoting creative arts-based approaches that combat loneliness.

To understand how deeply anxiety and depression affect college students, consider this: 25% of the entire undergraduate class of Yale University signed up for a course that teaches how to lead a happier life. As the course’s professor told the New York Times, by “increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.” At Yale, more than 50% of undergraduates seek care at the college’s mental health counseling service. Across college campuses, the use of mental health services is rising sharply.

Facts and Figures

In a 2017 survey of nearly 48,000 college students, 64% said they had felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months, while only 19% reported they never felt lonely, according to the American College Health Association. Students also reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety (62%) or “very sad” (69%), and that “things were hopeless” (53%). Nearly 12% seriously considered suicide.

According to the 2017 annual report by Penn State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health, the incidence of depression and anxiety (the most common concerns for college students) has risen in frequency. Data suggest that a dramatic increase in demand for mental health services is driven by higher incidences of depression and anxiety.

According to the 2016 Freshman Survey administered by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, a record-high of 12% of students reported “frequently” feeling depressed during the past year, while 14% said there was a “very good chance” they would seek counseling in college. Nearly 35% of students frequently felt anxious.

Factors driving the higher risk of loneliness among students

Increased isolation related to social media use

A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined the association between social media use and “perceived” social isolation. Researchers concluded that young adults who turned frequently to social media “seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts” who did not. One theory is that frequent social media use displaces more personal social experiences “that might truly decrease social isolation.” The study hypothesized that the relationship between isolation and social media is shaped by how Facebook and other sites depict “highly idealized representations” of happy lives. Such social media posts “may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives.”

A 2017 study published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology explored how college students who believe their peers are more socially connected reported less of a sense of well-being and belonging. Students believed that everyone else was more popular and had more close friends than they did.

The 2014 annual survey by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, documented a decline in socializing that may correlate to a decline in emotional health. In 1987, about 38% of incoming college students socialized with friends at least 16 hours a week. But by 2014, that figure had plummeted to 18%; nearly 39% of students said they spent only five hours a week or less socializing. There has been a corresponding rise in time spent instead on social media. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of students who spent six hours or more weekly on online social networks rose from 18.9% to 27.2%.

More admitted college students have pre-existing mental health conditions

Statistics show that more students are seeking mental health services on campus. The Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services, for example, served 21% of Cornell University students in the 2016-17 academic year, compared to only 13% in 2005-06.

Successful mental health interventions and medication regimens have helped more young adults attend college who in the past might have been weeded out from higher education. However, the higher prevalence of students with mental health needs means colleges must offer appropriate counseling services to keep these students emotionally stable. Decades ago, students who acted out or engaged in self-harm behaviors might have simply been kicked out of college.

The diversity of student body

Research indicates that college students of color are almost twice as likely as white students to not seek care when they feel depressed or anxious, according to The Jed Foundation. As well, a 2017 online Harris Poll of 1,000 college students found that students of color are more likely to feel isolated on campus than white students (46% vs 30%).

First generation college students can be especially susceptible to loneliness. Many of their friends may not attend college. At  Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico, for example, many students are protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and these “Dreamers” are more likely to be socially isolated to protect family members who are undocumented.

The stigma against admitting depression or loneliness

According to the 2016/2017 Healthy Minds Study, a University of Michigan survey of mental health and related issues in college student populations, there is a perceived stigma against publicly admitting to a mental health condition. Nearly 50% of students agreed with the statement “most people would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment.”


The Foundation for Art & Healing