Sitting near the windows in the mess, I glance around the hall, looking for familiar faces. My eyes fall on faces I see everyday. They are always alone. They sit alone, eat alone and walk back alone. I wonder often at this. This is a strange sight, you see, in a multitude of happy groups of girls, huddled together to have their meals. Why are they always alone? Do they not enjoy company? How are they like outside this setting? Are they alone? Or are they lonely?
What is loneliness? Is there a difference between being alone and being lonely? Is it possible to be not alone but still be lonely?
The answers to that would be yes, yes, and yes, respectively.
Loneliness is a negative emotional response to the feeling of being isolated. It’s psychological and makes it perfectly possible for us to feel lonely even when surrounded by people. It is also possible to not feel lonely even while being alone.
Quarantine has us all in quite a fix, of course. As humans, we all need human connections to thrive. This period is difficult for everyone, and to some, more than the others. Sitting behind a screen makes it much more difficult than usual for some people to maintain the few relationships they had before this. The lack of opportunity to meet with people, spend time with them all take a toll on the way you interact. Loneliness can get worse as we spent more time in the lockdown. But this is a necessary factor that comes with protecting ourselves from a deadly disease. That all of us are in this together might be of some consolation, I would hope.
But is it only during quarantine that loneliness should become a concern? Are we safe from this epidemic otherwise?
Mental health has become a serious concern across the world, and especially in the institute as well. The various institute bodies such as Saathi, Mitr, YourDost all have this in mind in all their activities.
Loneliness is often reported amongst elderly people. The physical isolation that they face in their senior years is a major factor. But young people can face it, too. In such a dynamic college environment like insti, it is easy to imagine that we would be almost invincible to this phenomenon.
But we are absolutely not. A good look at the many social media pages run by the students of the institute tells us of how many people feel loneliness, and how acutely. Accounts, and confessions of students who have felt the pain of being isolated, of feeling the lack of having no one to turn to resonate with several others.
“Insti can be very terrifying as freshies. While the thrill of making new friends, starting a fresh chapter of your life and all are there, it is also very scary. I have never stayed away from my home before coming here. I went from seeing them everyday to not even being able to call them regularly,” says an undergrad student who wishes to remain anonymous.
As a freshie, it seems like there are endless things to do here, she continues, and it is all really fun, meeting new people, spending time with them. But what many freshies don’t always notice is how they move away from one support system unconsciously, and into a completely new environment with completely different rules.
It is often during a stressful situation – the middle of quizzes, the endsemester exam period – when we find that either we don’t have anyone to turn to or that others are experiencing something very similar to support us, that we realise that this change hasn’t been very smooth-sailing.
“The dynamics of friendships change a lot in the first year. I myself spent time with a group of people in the beginning of my first semester that I did not even talk to by the end of it. It is not very easy to navigate through this – discovering people who share your interests, who you connect with and even just people who you feel happy around. It often takes way too much effort as well.“
It so happens that sometimes, some people aren’t lucky enough to build a solid support system by the end of their freshie year. Roommates are of some help in this situation. There are certain issues that pop up with roommates – mutual adjustment and compromise aren’t always guaranteed, and it is definitely difficult to share one’s very personal space with someone you have not known before coming here. As annoying as they can get, sometimes it is one of the few or the only constant contact that a student would have through their semester.
From their freshie year, numerous students look forward to moving into a single room and to having their own personal space. But is it the paradise and the freedom that we imagine it would be?
To many, in many ways, yes. But to many others, in many other ways, it is not. “When you start living in a single room, you slowly start to realize the lack of things that you didn’t notice exist before. The lack of another constant human presence settles in very slowly, but very surely. For starters, there will be silence. You know those ambient sounds that used to be present all the time? Those will be gone.“
The student who wishes to be anonymous continues, “you start to realise that the only reason you guys formed a friendship or a companionship was only because you were forced to see each other, to interact everyday. Roommates have a forced common routine – waking up, having meals, having common acquaintances and incidents. Nothing came about because you guys were genuinely friends, all of this was because you were just together. Once alone, any semblance of a normal routine would go out of the window. You settle into your own routines, that would be very different to your former roommate’s.”
Roommates are not the only source of routine interactions. PoRs also provide an opportunity to meet people you’d have not otherwise. As one student said, “I choose my PoRs based on the kind of people I can engage with. I think some people would think of me as a person who likes to work a lot, but it is mostly a need to be kept busy, while not being deprived of interaction. The team’s interaction level is a much more important criteria than most people realize. If you are going to work, better it be with people you can develop a connection or friendship with. It would get terribly hectic otherwise. It helps in coping when I don’t have classmates to turn to.“
It is important to note that while we have these options, PhD and PG scholars don’t have these options either. With not many actively seeking out the limited number of PoRs available to them, and with very different schedules, they are not left with many opportunities to meet other scholars.
It becomes necessary to have targeted activities to include them as well, especially as they face isolation in a structural manner.
Regardless, it is not necessary that everyone is ready or even knows how to turn to existing ways of interaction. Loneliness is normal when it is only occasional. It is also necessary. But prolonged loneliness has many health issues associated with it. From more likely chances of death to depression, it is highly important that we tackle this with care and determination. Studies show that prolonged loneliness can also affect the way we interact, it may forever impair our ability to form meaningful associations.
Targeted activities for people regardless of whether they are currently lonely are necessary. This is where institute bodies such as Saathi, Mitr and YourDost all come in.
For example, Saathi has many initiatives that attempt to reach out to the students. These include a multitude of events ranging from the Institute Immersion Programme, Mindfulness Workshop, Ikigai Workshop, Breakthrough Fear Workshop, Weekly PMR Relaxation Sessions, F.I.E.S.T.A (Faculty Interaction and Engagement with Students and Activities), Online Wellbeing Challenges, and many more. On the Saathi mentor program, Saathi core Akshaya says that the idea behind it is that the mentors serve as bridge of familiarity in the completely new environment.
“We urge the Saathi mentors to be a source of emotional, moral and academic support to students in their first year of campus life, but,” she continues, “personal involvement of the students and mentors still determines the mentor-mentee relationship.”
There is also a set of clinical therapists in the Wellness Centre on the campus, available 24/7. “We have also seen a rise in the number of students that have approached these therapists lately,” Akshaya says, “largely through word of mouth of people who have sought help. But the stigma surrounding it still continues to prevent many more from seeking help, and we are trying to address these issues through more personal means such as mentors.” Despite these, PG scholars’ inclusion and involvement continue to be a problem. While they don’t have many specialised activities targeting the scholars, Saathi strives to keep their interests in mind. The PG core in the team also focuses on the issues of the PG students. English Minglish is one activity that focused on PG students as the target audience.
In the time of this lockdown, Saathi also has initiatives planned. Akshaya says, “We have a couple of social media initiatives coming up. The #QuaranTIME challenges, for example, were a success. We also have a series of posts from therapists in the Institute Wellness Center to help students handle the overload of information and the anxiety that comes along with it. For students who need professional help, YourDost has circulated contact numbers for online counselling.”
Akshaya also assures that the institute therapists are still remotely available via mail and call.
While quarantine has shown us just how difficult it can get without support systems, and relationships for anyone and everyone, we also need to think of the isolation that people can face throughout the year, in perfectly normal everyday life. If you are someone who faces loneliness and finds that there is no-one that you can turn to in your time of need, do remember that there is professional help available. As difficult as it might be to put in the effort to get in contact with friends and family, it is worth it.
And if you are someone that knows someone who faces loneliness, please do reach out to them, now and anytime else as well. Insti can be a rough place for many people, but do remember that there are services and help available to counter this experience as well.