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Student isolation and anxiety rates set to peak this Christmas as one in three left behind to face the festivities alone

24 Dec 2019 | By Jessica Smith

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but for some students the festive season can intensify their existing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The traditional Christmas image of family and friends; of caring and sharing; of eating, drinking and being merry is not the reality for many students. And while friends head off for the holidays, those left behind can be left alone feeling isolated.

New figures from online mental health community Big White Wall show that over half of students accessing its services did so because they felt isolated. BWW, the leading online mental health support service in the UK with professionally trained and registered moderators available around the clock, offers its services to nearly 1.1 million students in many leading universities across the country.

The support service has teamed up with the UK arm of university accommodation provider dwell Student Living to strengthen the help it provides to students feeling alone and in need. Over 2,500 students living in dwell Student Living halls will be able to access BWW’s free, anonymous, safe space to engage with a wider network of people and share their thoughts and feelings, ask questions and receive advice.

BWW Clinical Director Dr Tim Rogers said it was important for students to recognise that it’s “ok not to be ok” and that Christmas can be a particularly difficult time.

“One of the reasons Christmas can be so hard is because we are comparing ourselves negatively to others even more so than at other times of the year. Christmas highlight reels on Instagram can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and isolation. Being alone carries a stigma. There is a relationship between loneliness and our mental health.”

Dr Rogers explained that, in using BWW, students would find a connected, online community where many would share their experiences.

Over Christmas we have a lot of users who will post their tips and solutions for getting through the festive period, which can help others to cope. People show understanding. Members can see they are not alone in what they are going through.

Dr Tim Rogers, Clinical Director, BWW

Andrea Seddon, UK Assistant General Manager at dwell Student Living said: “We care very much about the wellness of our residents, many of whom are living away from home for the first time in their lives. As many of them are international students, they tend not to go home during the festive period, which can mean they feel alone and isolated.

“At Dwell, we place strong focus in promoting mental and physical wellness. We are happy to be working with Big White Wall. Together, we can provide even more extensive help and support to our students who may be feeling anxious and isolated over the holiday period.”

A recent YouGov poll found that nearly a third of people aged 18 to 24 felt lonely at Christmas and research suggests that more than 750,000 students stay at university over the Christmas period.

Around 5% of students at the University of Edinburgh will remain in halls this Christmas, and they can already benefit from the BWW service. The university’s Chaplain Harriet Harris said: “Some students, for whatever reason, choose not to or can’t go home.

“We know that loneliness and isolation is an issue for some of our students over Christmas and we try to ensure that they know about all the services and events that are available to them at what can be a difficult time.”

Speaking about her experience of isolation and mental health on a recent University of Edinburgh podcast, third-year Zoology student Rosie Taylor said: “One of the times I get really lonely is over the holiday season.”

Rosie, who said she had never had a stable or good relationship with family members, does not go home for Christmas.

“I know that my mental health suffers at this time of year… with social media and people posting all these Christmas scenes and messages and everyone sitting around eating dinner I can feel an overwhelming loss and sadness and bit of bitterness that I can’t have that and I can feel really lonely, Christmas adverts make me cry… but I know a lot of students experience this and spend Christmas alone.”

Students at Lancashire’s Edge Hill University can also access the BWW community throughout the year, but with around 4% staying at the university over Christmas, Megan Blissett, Operations Manager for well-being and counselling, said that the service offers a really valuable resource for those students feeling isolated.

“There are many reasons why students don’t go home at Christmas – they may not have a good environment at home, or could be care leavers or estranged from their family, in which case they don’t have a home to go to, so the university is their home.

“We offer a support service for our students over Christmas, we advertise and remind them what Big White Wall can offer.”

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