Beacon: loneliness and community

The Centre’s Beacon Projects aspire to exemplify the ways in which the Centre aims to create and sustain cultures and environments of health through transdisciplinary engaged research.

Loneliness and community: transforming belonging at the University of Exeter

Dr Fred Cooper
Professor Manuela Barreto
Professor Mark Jackson
Dr Charlotte Jones

Find out more about the Centre’s loneliness network here.

If you are a current student at the University of Exeter, join our project here.

Despite – and perhaps in part because of – long-standing cultural associations between university life, friendship, and sociability, a troubling proportion of students experience acute or chronic loneliness in the course of their degree. Recent quantitative surveys differ in their estimation of the extent of the issue, and their definitions and data are open to interpretation. They gesture, however, to a serious crisis in the ability of British universities to build and sustain crucial visible and invisible infrastructures of connection and belonging.

Student loneliness sits at the intersection of two endemic modern challenges. In the first instance, mounting evidence of widespread psychological ill-health in higher education has motivated increasing attention and concern from academics, students, families, institutions, well-being services, and accommodation providers. The relationship between loneliness and other causes and components of distress is complex. Loneliness works to complicate and amplify negative feelings and sensations, and mediates among social environment and a range of serious mental and physical disorders. It also warrants understanding as a degenerative psychological process in its own right, with adverse behavioural and cognitive consequences over time.

In the second instance, high rates of loneliness at university are one facet of a society-wide crisis of connection, with deep and intricate cultural, political, and historical roots. For the first time, important surveys tell us that adolescents and young adults between 16 and 24 are most at risk. Unravelling the experiences of students from this broader context is artificial and undesirable. We recognise, however, that university cultures and environments – as well as geographical and emotional transitions from school, college, home, and adolescence – pose specific psychological challenges. They also offer unique educational and organisational assets, which can be mobilised and transformed into drivers of community, inclusion, and health.

The University of Exeter campuses at Streatham, St. Luke’s and Penryn, then, are fertile ground for transformative work on loneliness and belonging. In the short term, feelings of isolation and disconnection can open up vicious cycles of alcohol or substance abuse and addiction, damage student retention and academic performance, cause and exacerbate bullying and victimisation, and greatly increase the burden on overstretched well-being and student health services. In the longer term, they produce graduates ill-equipped to form and manage fulfilling relationships, or to construct and maintain the networks necessary to weather stressful or isolating life events. Conversely, positive experiences of community and friendship can mitigate or reverse harmful thoughts and behaviours learned in adolescence or childhood, and build an important foundation for future resilience.

This project begins from a shared understanding of loneliness and belonging as complicated, structural, multi-layered, deeply personal, and inextricably culturally and politically entangled. Consequently, work on the subject demands intellectual and disciplinary pluralism, artistic vision and creativity, and active engagement and collaboration with people who have lived experience of the issue in question.

The first aim, therefore, is to create the conditions for students to take meaningful ownership of ideas, research questions, directions, and outcomes. This process of mutual learning will guide the form that the project ultimately takes, as participants will be encouraged and supported to become committed co-researchers. It may be that they elect to build an evidence base, resulting in an important contribution to public, academic, and institutional knowledge on why, when, where and how students become lonely; they may also seek to develop and trial an innovative preventive or remedial programme. Whatever emerges from these critical conversations, it will be rooted from the beginning in the concerns, experiences, and requirements of students themselves.

A second, overlapping aim of this project is to work alongside the Northcott Theatre on an original performance piece driven by creative and intellectual collaboration between WCCEH academics, artists/makers, and student co-creators. In bringing these diverse perspectives into constructive proximity, the intention is to explore new ways to co-design and engage wider constituencies with complex health research. Reflecting the double meaning of ‘culture’, this partnership will open up a space for theatre to act on the interlinking cultures of city and campus, raising consciousness, solidarity, and empathy around causes and experiences of loneliness and isolation.

Both these aspects of the project task us to reach across and beyond disciplines, transforming our own practice as researchers. Accordingly, they represent an occasion for sustained critical reflection and evaluation of collaborative processes, deeply valuable objectives in their own right. Led by the centre’s designated expert on engaged research, Dr Ann Grand, a further strand of the project will be devoted to the analysis and dissemination of our techniques and experiences. Showing and confronting the nuances and challenges of our working, we contend, is inseparable from our practise as engaged, transdisciplinary scholars. Our aim in this sense is to contribute to a rigorous methodological conversation, constructing opportunities for learning among beacon collaborators, WCCEH members, and external researchers, organisations and institutions with interests in undertaking comparable projects.

In addition, the Centre is working with the WHO Regional Office for Europe on a Health Evidence Network (HEN) Report on the cultural contexts of loneliness among young people in the WHO European region. This collaboration draws on the expertise of WCCEH and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Culture and Health, and will be authored by members of the Beacon team.


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