I live with five roommates, all of them close friends. We live in a small duplex, sharing bathrooms and kitchen space and everything in between. We pass each other in the hall and say hi, run into each other in the kitchen between classes and briefly catch up, and sometimes eat dinner together when our schedules line up. You would think it would be impossible to feel alone in a house like that. However, it wasn’t until almost 10 months of living together that I started to realize how lonely we all were. We were breathing the same air, day in and day out, but we saw each other’s faces so frequently that we stopped actually conversing. The pandemic had forced all of us in front of screens and behind closed doors, and we stopped taking the time to be with one another.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the global community, there is a new pandemic festering among us: loneliness. A survey done by Harvard during the pandemic showed that a shocking 61% of young people (18-25) reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the prior four weeks. Many young people, including myself, are used to finding community and communicating online, but the pandemic has proven that social media may not be enough to keep us all connected. We need one another, in person, face-to-face, if we want to thrive.
When we were all sent home from school last March, we had no idea how much we would lose this year. The scale of collective grief we have experienced is incomprehensible; two classes of seniors lost the final days of their college experience and many freshmen had to put their plans to start school on hold. I didn’t realize how much time with friends I would lose, so I didn’t even bother saying goodbye to them. Now, as we are close to the world reopening, I fear we have forgotten how to be together, at a time when we are going to need each other the most.
Being lonely is not exclusive to a global pandemic. College can be isolating, especially in the years before you find “your people.” I spent a lot of my freshman year feeling alone and it wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I made good friends, that I realized that this was much more common than I thought. We’d all been putting on a good show on social media, but almost everyone I knew struggled during freshman year. The key to finding our way out of that first year slump was connecting in person. It was the people I got coffee with at Pilot House and spent late nights in the dorms with who stayed consistent in my life and made me feel just a little bit less alone.
As my friends and I spread out across the West Coast when the pandemic first started, I never thought that loneliness would become such a problem. They had become my best friends and I thought that had built a barrier between myself and that feeling from freshman year. What I didn’t realize is just how much I need them in person, to give me a hug on my bad days and celebrate with me on my good ones. The feeling of loneliness set in quickly and barely dissipated until almost a year later.
When we all moved into a house together in the fall, I thought my concerns about loneliness were gone. We were sharing a physical space, as closely as was possible, so how could I ever feel less than fulfilled? But we each got busy with our own lives and spent less and less time together. Despite only a few feet separating our bedrooms, I had never felt so alone. The stigma around admitting that you’re feeling lonely prevented me from reaching out, so I resigned myself to solitude. In reality, our collective isolation was the one thing that could bring us all together, if only we were brave enough to say something.
As the end of the pandemic peeks over the horizon, I have so many hopes that all of us will learn from this terribly difficult year. I am confident I am not the only one that felt isolated at times and I know everyone is craving the feeling of being in a crowded room again. My biggest hope, however, is not that we just go back to the way things were. I hope this pandemic taught us that we need more than online dating and a few text exchanges; we have been forced behind screens for long enough. Instead of DMing that girl from class, tell her in person that you’d like to grab coffee. Instead of Facetiming with that friend for a quick catch up, make the time to drive across town to see them. We need to step into a world where we connect with one another, face-to-face.
My housemates and I are only now figuring out how to be there for one another. We’ve started making plans to go for walks and to cook dinner together. Just the small effort to study in a communal space rather than our bedrooms has revolutionized the way we live. I encourage everyone to take those extra steps, no matter how small, to connect with the people in your bubble. As finals week quickly approaches and everyone’s stress level spikes, it can feel like an insurmountable task to take the extra time to socialize in a meaningful way. However, sharing our stress can only help us feel just a little bit less like we’re suffering alone.
Loneliness amongst young people is an epidemic. The first step out of it is knowing that so many of us feel that way. The next step is to be there, to show up for one another, in person. We all need human connection to heal from this past year. So when the time is right, when you’re vaccinated and mask mandates have lifted, step outside and find one another. Only we can make each other feel less alone; only we can build a stronger and more connected community.
Mia Werner is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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