1 in 3 students feels lonely

1 in 3 students feels lonely

Master’s thesis shows that first-year students in particular feel lonely. VUB launches VUBuddy project

International research suggests that 23-60% of students experience feelings of loneliness, but Flemish universities do not know how their students feel about the issue. With the department of Student Affairs of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, clinical psychology student Lima van den Steen, supervised by Professor Dr Veerle Soyez, asked 191 students about their mental well-being. More than one in three students (36.65%) indicated that they felt lonely. By appointing a Kotcoach and introducing a buddy project, VUB is already taking concrete measures to tackle the issue this academic year.

“We used a questionnaire to survey VUB students about their feelings of loneliness, their mental well-being and the factors associated with this. This showed that first-year students in particular feel lonely, probably because of the radical life changes they are going through,” says van den Steen. “The research was also conducted before the corona crisis; it would be interesting to investigate whether and to what extent the students felt even more lonely during and after the lockdown.”

Furthermore, the results seem to indicate that volunteering, participation in student activities and membership of a sports club, a socio-cultural association or a youth movement are protective factors against loneliness. Feelings of stress seem to correlate positively with feelings of loneliness. As students’ feelings of self-esteem and perceived social support increased, the influence of stress on feelings of loneliness also diminished.

“The results give a first indication about loneliness among students and can encourage universities to get a better picture and further develop their policy in this area,” says Prof Soyez. She emphasises the importance of a differentiated preventive approach, which not only raises students’ awareness but also includes, for example, environmental interventions.

Kotcoach and VUBuddy

VUB already offers support in the field of mental health and well-being for students. For example, it works with the Centre for General Welfare, and on campus there is the Brussels University Consultation Centre, an ambulant centre for psychological counseling. “This research shows that not all these services are equally well known to students. For example, most students are familiar with the counselling service, but this does not mean they know what kind of help it offers. So it may be useful to give new students more information about these services,” says Jan Danckaert, vice-rector of Education and Student Affairs.

VUB has already taken preventive measures. For example, the first Kotcoach was appointed in April. Through various efforts and activities, this initiative aims to strengthen the social bonds among the students living in kots.

In addition, the university launched the VUBuddy project at the start of the new academic year, in which 115 experienced VUB students volunteered to take charge of a small group of new students and introduce them to the university community. Through digital activities, sharing fun VUB knowledge or sharing their experiences and feelings, they also try to facilitate more connectedness and togetherness within the buddy groups. “The first days and weeks at a university are always exciting and bring uncertainty and some loneliness anyway. Add to that now the issue of face masks, social distancing and fewer physical classes on campus and we can all imagine that this puts a great strain on the well-being of our students,” says Sofie De Smet, head of the Department of Student Affairs. “VUBuddies notice that the new students miss social contact with their fellow students. Although it is not easy to get to know each other in the context of a pandemic with all kinds of safety measures in place, the buddies think of different initiatives, physically where possible and digitally where necessary. In this way, the project tries to meet their needs.” 


- Lima van den Steen: 0479 68.95.34

- Department of Student Affairs - VUB, Sofie De Smet: 0498 94.58.83


The complete master’s thesis is published on the Wetenschapswinkel website. The Science Shop is a VUB and UAntwerp initiative that matches research questions from non-profit organisations and the VUB itself with students and lecturers who answer these questions within projects and dissertations.

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