How UVa Addresses Student Loneliness, Depression

A federal survey shows a 63% increase in depressive symptoms in teens and young adults in the 10 years prior to COVID. Source: “Hoos Connected: Enhancing Social belonging & Support Among UVa Students

by James A. Bacon

A new preoccupation of college administrators across the United States is how to give students a sense of “belonging.” The concern is understandable. There is increasing awareness that America is experiencing a “loneliness” epidemic, as reflected by a 40% rate nationally of anxiety, depression and other diagnosed mental illnesses among college students. If students fail to connect with classes, professors, or other students — to feel part of a community — they are more likely to fall into a state of anxiety, depression and self-destructive behavior.

The University of Virginia is trying to address the problem of loneliness and isolation with a program called Hoos Connected. Psychology Professor Joseph P. Allen, executive director, will brief the Board of Visitors tomorrow about the program.

Hoos Connected organizes weekly small-group discussions and activities for first-year and transfer students. In a pilot program, according to a PowerPoint presentation posted on the Board website, Hoos Connected participants and a control group of non-participating students started out roughly equivalent in a measure of student loneliness. Among the goals was to get students to make inter-personal connections and recognize “how much we all have in common beneath the surface.” By the end of the semester, the Hoos Connected cohort showed a decline in loneliness, while the control group exhibited an increase, according to Allen.

The improvement among the Hoos Connected group is encouraging. But here’s a question the Board of Visitors should ask: What’s going on with the rest of the students?

The meaning of the graph in Allen’s PowerPoint is not crystal clear. Is the metric displayed in the graph the percentage of students expressing feelings of loneliness, or a measure of intensity, or something else entirely? Hopefully, Allen will explain that to the Board. Whatever the precise meaning, the number for the control group went up, which suggests that non-Hoos Connected participants experienced increased loneliness over the semester. Whether or not that increase was statistically significant is impossible to tell from the graph alone, but it is a potential source of concern.

It is understandable that Allen would wish to emphasize the success of his program for those who participated in it. But I hope someone on the Board will explore the implications of Allen’s graph for the rest of the student body. Someone should ask Dean of Student Affairs Robyn Hadley why she thinks non-participating students are exhibiting greater loneliness.

One would expect new students to become less lonely as they attend classes, join clubs, meet people, and have time to find their niche and make friends. Is there something toxic about the campus climate that induces students to feel more lonely after a full semester?

One benchmark for analysis might be the “2018 UVA Diversity and Inclusion Climate Survey” initiated during the Teresa Sullivan administration and largely ignored upon its release. That survey of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff broke down the community into nine identity groups, including race/ethnicity, sex, gender identity, socioeconomic status, political orientation and others. While the survey asked respondents if they felt that their identity was “respected” at UVa, it did not address issues of loneliness, isolation or mental illness.

Board members might ask if it is time, four years later, to conduct another survey.

The issue seems all the more urgent since the senseless Nov. 13 mass shooting of five students. The Attorney General’s investigation into the tragedy could reveal insights into the shooter’s state of mind. But anecdotal evidence suggests that loneliness, isolation, alienation and/or mental illness might have been factors behind the shooter’s rampage. There may be systemic issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps programs like Hoos Connected, which Allen would like to expand, could provide a psychological vaccination against a repeat of the Nov. 13 horror. 

Hopefully, the Board will have the opportunity in the hour and a half allotted to the Academic and Student Life Committee, which will address several other topics, to fully discuss the issue of loneliness and belonging. The Jefferson Council will be there, and we’ll report back on what we hear.