Feeling alone in the crowd common at college

FRESNO, Calif. — Leslie Thompson drifted away from many of her friends while attending Fresno City College, and she transferred to Fresno State feeling alone and lonely.

Thompson didn’t make connections at the university. She talked to only a few students. She left campus right after her classes. She isolated herself in a student body of 22,000.

“I didn’t have anyone,” said the 24-year-old Fresnan.

Then she signed up for a program for lonely college students at California State in Fresno. It’s not a lonely hearts club, but a place to learn communication skills and examine behavior that can lead to loneliness.

Fresno State is one of the few schools in the nation with a structured program aimed at loneliness — a problem that entails more than feeling blue.

Research shows that social isolation can impair students’ immune systems and attack their mental health.

Other colleges and universities are aware of the problem.

“It’s a bigger issue than many people realize,” said Dave Obwald, residence director at Fresno Pacific University. “The popular notion is that you go to college and make lifetime friends and find a lifetime mate.”

Only a handful of Fresno State students have gone through professor Sean Seepersad’s free program, which he started a year ago and offers once a semester. Another seven-week session kicked off last week.

Research shows that 25 percent to 50 percent of all Americans feel lonely at any given time, and that people 18 to 25 may be most at risk for loneliness because they’re breaking away from family and friends and establishing new lives, Seepersad said.

Some college officials don’t believe the number of lonely students is high. But arriving at an exact figure would be challenging, because it’s a problem that few students want to talk about, one professor said.

“It’s something you might say in a letter to somebody back home, but it’s not a great way to start a conversation with a stranger,” said Reed Larson, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was Seepersad’s graduate advisor. “There’s a little social taboo in talking about loneliness.”

Feeling lonely, however, is part of the human condition, and many first-year college students who leave home experience it, said Rick Hanson, a psychologist at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. and president of the American College Counseling Association.

Unlike Fresno State, few college or universities offer structured programs for students who say loneliness is a problem, Hanson said. But many students don’t need that level of help.

College officials commonly tell lonely freshmen that their feelings are normal, and that it takes time and effort to build new relationships, Hanson said.

Fresno State students not involved in the program say loneliness should be an easy thing to address.

“If you want to meet new people, you’re not going to be lonely,” said Mitchel Cabrera, a 17-year-old civil engineering major from Riverdale, Calif.

Fresno State offers many activities so students can connect with one another, said Marisol Reynoso, 20, of Visalia, Calif., a psychology major. “If they’re lonely, they’re choosing to seclude themselves,” Reynoso said.

But joining a club isn’t necessarily the answer, Seepersad said.

“The issue is that people have ways of thinking and behaving that can lock them in this experience of loneliness,” he said.

They have dysfunctional ideas about social relationships that come from how they did — or did not — bond with their parents, how their families operated and how their peers treated them.

As a result, they have a deeper sense of isolation, Seepersad said.

“When it affects your daily functioning, you need to do something about it.”

His program involves reading assignments and group discussions. Seepersad said he doesn’t tell students how to change, but tries to get them to analyze themselves. Maybe they’re clingy. Or they tell too much too soon about themselves. Or maybe they’re too sensitive to rejection. And people are turned off and turn away.

“I want the program to give them a new understanding of themselves,” Seepersad said. “That’s all you can expect to see in seven weeks.”

Fresno State student Thompson found the two-hour-a-week program through a flier, and she wasn’t embarrassed to admit she needed help.

Different goals separated her from high school friends, and when she got to Fresno State a year ago, she had difficulty initiating new friendships.

She learned in the program to ask open-ended questions that could lead to conversations. She also decided to take the initiative in approaching people, and a year later reports having made some friends at Fresno State.

“It’s a sense of relief,” Thompson said. “When you’re not talking to people, it’s really lonely, and it’s boring.”

Seepersad’s program — called L.U.V. or Lonely?: Unburdening your Vulnerability — is not a class, and he isn’t paid for it. However, the university lets him hold sessions in a classroom, and he received a $5,000 grant this year from the university to further his research in loneliness.

An assistant professor in the department of child, family and consumer sciences, Seepersad is starting his third year at the university. He received master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Illinois, where he started a loneliness program as part of his doctorate studies.

Loneliness among college students has been linked to both psychological and physical problems, Seepersad said.

There are emotional problems such as depression and social anxiety, and behavioral problems such as social withdrawal. Some researchers also associate suicide, alcoholism and illness with loneliness, Seepersad said.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh even found in a 2005 study that lonely and socially isolated freshmen had a weaker immune response to a flu shot than other students.

While the stakes are high in dealing with loneliness, some students have started Seepersad’s program, but then dropped out.

“They want an instantaneous answer,” he said. “There is no magic pill, but the people who finished realized that the cure for loneliness involves a journey.”

— Doug Hoagland

McClatchy Newspapers