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Repeat freshers’ week to combat first-year loneliness ‘epidemic’ fuelling student mental health crisis, says report

Eleanor Busby
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Loneliness is “endemic” among first-year students with more than one in four saying they often or always feel lonely, a study has found.

More universities should adopt ‘re-fresher’ weeks throughout the year to tackle concerns about wellbeing, the Higher Education Policy Institute and Unite Students report says.

In Freshers’ Week, students are less likely to go to a party, the SU bar or share a meal with others than they expected, the survey shows. They also find it harder to make friends than they had hoped.

First-year students who frequently experience loneliness are significantly more likely to feel unsatisfied, unhappy and feel that their life is not worthwhile than their more social peers.

The findings come as hundreds of thousands of students are due to arrive at university for the first time this month.

The report shows that the proportion of students who say they have a mental health condition has risen from 12 per cent in 2016 to more than one in six (17 per cent) this year.

And less than a quarter (23 per cent) of these students trust their university to provide the support they need, the survey of 2,500 applicants and 2,500 first-year students finds.

It also shows that friendship groups tend to shrink between school and university – which can have a direct impact on wellbeing.

One in five applicants say they have a big circle of friends compared to 15 per cent of first-year students – and the report says students with smaller friendship groups are less likely to be satisfied with their lives.

The report adds that current students view university as a gradual transition into adult life and therefore the traditional approach of a single, high-intensity Freshers Week is no longer enough for this generation.

It says: “More could be done to help students connect, make friends and integrate when they first come to university.

“Moreover, viewing university itself as an extended period of transition to adult life means we have to think of Freshers’ Week as the start of a journey rather than a one-off immersion.

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Max Guiton, a philosophy student who has just completed his first year at the University of the West of England (UWE), said: “In terms of making Freshers’ Week better, it’s about removing the ‘week’ aspect of it, and the hype and pressure of expecting it to be the best, most fun experience of your life to date.

“It’s unrealistic and of course that will set you up for disappointment. It’s a settling-in period, and one week can’t influence the rest of your time at university.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said Freshers’ Week can often be seen as “daunting and superficial”, adding that more needs to be done to tackle the loneliness “epidemic”.

He said: “Some students’ unions have usefully explored re-fresher weeks, which serve a similar purpose but can take place at other times, like the start of the calendar year. These are worth exploring further.”

There have been predictions that face-to-face lectures on campus could be phased out in favour of digital learning approaches, but the research suggests that students value them as a social opportunity.

Mr Hillman added: “The importance students ascribe to the issue of loneliness even seems to help explain their continuing preference for face-to-face lectures over other ways of learning.”

Jenny Shaw, student experience director at Unite Students, said it was both “surprising and concerning” how many students still feel lonely at the end of their first year – especially in light of wellbeing concerns.

She added: “The transition to university life is a gradual rather than a ‘sheep dip’ process, and no one type of freshers’ week experience will work for all students, not when we know how diverse they are. New students will need different kinds of support at different times and in different situations.”

Eva Crossan Jory, vice president for welfare at the National Union of Students, said: “With fees so high, and the job market so competitive, students feel under intense pressure to ‘succeed’ from day one.

“While loneliness is a factor, there is also an increase in reports in isolation, depression, and anxiety amongst first-year students as a result.”

She added: “It’s important students know they can engage with their student’s union at any time, not just at Freshers’ Week.”