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Liz Puah

Liz is a full-time psychology student at the University of Queensland and a part-time music maker/video-game player.

Finding a home away from home

Coming to Brisbane for university was an immensely exciting event in my life. I was thrilled at the thoughts of discovering this new city, building new relationships, and experiencing a new culture.

As a fairly outgoing person, once university started I had no problem engaging with people and was actively trying to make friends. I thought I had it all covered, but I soon found that the connections I thought I was making with people could not develop past superficial relationships.

All of a sudden, the beautiful new city that I was just getting used to felt scary and unfamiliar, the people seemed intimidating, and the Australian culture that was at first unique and intriguing became foreign. I missed my family and my circle of friends back home. A looming sense of loneliness crept in, a kind of loneliness that lurked in the back of my mind, making me wonder if it was my fault.

Thinking about it now, I had nothing to worry about, as unbelievable as that may have been to me at the time. If you share that worry, I hope this article will help to quell some of it as I discuss the prevalence of loneliness in international students, its potentially harmful effects, and methods you can use to overcome it.

The prevalence of loneliness in international students

It is important to know that if you related to my story at all, you are not alone.

For us international students in particular, it is extremely common to experience loneliness. This is shown in a study by Sawir, Marginson, Deumert, Nyland & Ramia (2007), which found that 65% of the 200 students they interviewed said that they have experienced periods of loneliness or isolation.

As outlined by Weiss (1973), loneliness has been suggested to manifest in several different forms – emotional loneliness and social loneliness. Emotional loneliness is caused by the loss of a personal relationship, and social loneliness by the loss of a network of peers.

Sawir et al. (2007) proposes a third type of loneliness: cultural loneliness, which is influenced by variations in cultural settings. Essentially, we can sometimes experience this type of loneliness when we are in an unfamiliar cultural and linguistic environment.

Being an international student, you may find that you have experienced one or even all the above types of loneliness, and that is perfectly normal!

The effects of loneliness

Why is it important to do something about this? Well, if not addressed, loneliness can evolve into a number of harmful issues, including negative impacts on quality of life, and in some cases even mental illness.

A group of researchers reviewed studies on loneliness and found that it has been associated with poor health outcomes, including depressed mood and sleep quality (Zawadzki, Graham and Gerin, 2013). Further studies have even found relationships between loneliness and longer-term issues such as heart disease and all-cause mortality, though more research needs to be done in this area to be sure of that.

Nevertheless, it’s still worth taking precaution as the more subtle effects of loneliness can still adversely affect our wellbeing.

How to cope with loneliness

There are many ways to cope with loneliness, and we will all have different methods that work for us.

The following strategies are adapted from a book by Simon Marginson (2010), the first of which is personal management.

Personal management of loneliness means changing the way we perceive and process this feeling. One way I did this is by coming to terms with my aloneness, learning that being alone is not necessarily equal to being lonely.

This doesn’t mean that we should settle for less; one of my favourite ways to tackle loneliness is to spend time with good people such as the friends I have here who are understanding and supportive of me. However, perception can do a lot to help us deal with the problem from its root.

With that in mind, another approach is to expand socially by engaging in different communities and activities. Joining some societies at university related to my identity and interests had a huge effect on helping me make genuine connections with like minded people.

Finally, there is some evidence that using electronic communication to maintain contact with family and friends from back home can decrease loneliness (Smith & Shwalb, 2007), so some might find it helpful to schedule video or phone calls with those people, or at the very least stay in touch via messaging apps or emails.

Loneliness affects many international students

Know that if it affects you, you are not alone. Putting up with loneliness can have harmful effects in the long-run, so taking the time to look after yourself and attempting to overcome it is a great thing to do for your health.

It may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but as someone who has been there before, I hope this article gives you some knowledge on how to get there, and provides some reassurance that things will get better.

If you feel like your situation is more serious, please do not hesitate to reach out for help. Universities usually have free counselling from student services, and there are also charity organisations such as Headspace (1800 650 890) for youth support and Lifeline (13 11 14) for crisis support.

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