23 Nov 2020
The Student’s Guide to Beating Loneliness
My name is Shambhavi, and I'm a first year medical student. I signed up to Medics4Medics- in the first couple of weeks of joining university. Medics4Medics is a small student-run society focused on peer support and mental wellbeing that runs monthly digital events on relevant mental health topics aimed at RUMS Medical Students. I dropped in to a welcome event at the online freshers fair and spent two wholesome hours with the committee. The time spent undoubtedly improved my first online experience of university. It was important to me to maintain my own mental health with their advice, and also help improve the wellbeing of others. For me, mental health is intrinsically linked to wellness as a whole in society. It’s a big part of why I want to be a doctor. So when I signed up as a speaker for their event on student experiences of loneliness, I knew that I wanted to say something heartfelt and that might make a difference - even if it was hard.
Loneliness is a topic that one might not directly associate with medicine. It is an emotion that we feel viscerally, that can cloud over our daily lives. From work experience in care homes and hospitals, I saw that many elderly people felt deeply lonely which often contributed to their worsening health. This was anecdotal; after observing Dr. Farhana Mann's presentation on her clinical and research-based findings on the health impacts of loneliness, I learned a great deal about the evidence behind how rampant loneliness affects people across society and how it may worsen chronic disease.
It was evident then, and is to me now in daily life, that loneliness is not limited to the very young or very old. Young adults - especially those doing intense end of year exams and going through university life - are often among the loneliest in many ways. When we go through exams, we have to keep our heads down and often don’t have time to devote to checking up on ourselves, much less others. A bad result can have a massive ripple effect on how we treat ourselves and those close to us. If that weren’t hard enough, there is always unspoken pressure among students about what we should be doing. Should we be socialising as much as possible? Or should we be studying as hard as we can? I find this to be particularly apparent in medical students. From student experiences of loneliness, it was clear that you can be intensely lonely while in a room full of people. This is only heightened with feelings of sadness and insecurity which can be toxic in itself. To cope, we might use work as a distraction and discard our mental health or burn out from work entirely. Student housing can be especially isolating on top of these pressures, and figuring out how to take care of yourself is, in a nutshell, hard.
Combine that with a pandemic that requires us to isolate ourselves to protect each other and we may have a tipping point. In the loneliness event, Niraj and I spoke of our own personal experiences. Niraj discussed general loneliness in university, whilst I chose to focus on my experiences of COVID-19 - which heavily affected my first year. What I wanted to achieve after speaking out, even to a small group of people, was to show others in my year that you’re not alone. I think that a potential solution to loneliness is to cultivate open and honest communication. Though, it can be hard to open up, especially if we are insecure or scared, sometimes, genuine kindness is all we need.
This was why, after much discussion with the Medics4Medics committee, we came up with an idea inspired by an organisation called Kindness by Post.
Kindness by Post was established by the Mental Health Collective as a way of connecting and uplifting people during the COVID-19 pandemic. It essentially involves people from across the country anonymously sending positive, thoughtful and kind messages in a card to each other.
Once you sign up, the selection process is random and you receive and send positive messages. Niraj had initially signed up to this and showed us a card he received - and we realised that this concept could be applied in the medical school. Sometimes all we need is reassurance of any kind that we are loved, that we are not alone, and that everything will be okay. Receiving such a message - even anonymously - not only benefits the recipient but is a reminder to the sender that they need to apply those messages to themselves. This could greatly benefit medical students: in such a big medical school it is easy to feel isolated and cut off, even without a pandemic.
As a result, we are planning to organise a completely student-run, confidential 'Kindness by Post' service. It would be for RUMS medical students, by RUMS medical students. You can sign up with your email and postal address, with your data being safe and private. You would be randomly paired with any medical student who signs up - across all years. It could be completely anonymous - or you can sign your name. You can also include anything that you might feel would help someone feel less lonely: art, positive messages, compliments, jokes. If I were to do it, I might put something that I would want sent to me, or those I love. These are all ideas but were they to be implemented, I believe the effect they might have could be powerful. It is a small step in connecting to each other, and one that I hope might lead to better communication and support between us all.