What is homesickness?
Most people will have felt homesick at some time in their lives, perhaps when they were younger, and it is easy to forget just how overwhelming it can be.
Beginning life at university naturally generates both excitement and anxiety about the move, academic work, meeting new people. For some, this apprehension is quickly overcome as they adapt to a new environment; for others the transition takes longer and sometimes emerges as homesickness where there is a preoccupation with home-focused thoughts. There is a yearning for and grieving over the loss of what is familiar and secure: most often it is about the loss of people - family and friends - but it is also about the loss of places and routines, and the realisation that family life continues without you.
Those who experience homesickness might notice an increase in depressed feelings, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and minor physical ailments. Homesickness can often be distinguished from depression in this way - in depression sufferers find both university and home awful, whereas in homesickness university can feel awful while home may be seen in rose-tinted hues.
Some students will start by being mildly depressed and anxious several weeks before leaving home, in anticipation of the impending change. Others will be fine initially, and then to their surprise find themselves feeling homesick later in the academic year, perhaps after the Christmas break, or even at the start of their second academic year. But commonly it is the first few days or weeks after arriving at university which are the most difficult.
Students are not immune just because they have successfully experienced leaving home before. Vulnerability to feeling homesick is affected by:
- the distance from home
- a sense of anticlimax at finally arriving at university after working towards it for so long
- whether the student was responsible for the decision to come to university
- unhappiness due to expectations of university not being met
- "job strain" - i.e. work overload and low control over it
- whether family members at home are well and happy
- contrast in lifestyle.
Those who are homesick often feel they have no control over their environment, and that they are not identified with it or committed to the university or their place in it.
Transition to University
There are two tasks involved in starting at university:
- leaving familiar things, people and places,
- adapting to new things, people and places.
Individuals have different levels of tolerance to change and have learned different ways of coping with new situations. But what can make transition so hard? In a familiar place people generally feel accepted and secure, and are therefore able to function and meet challenges successfully. Away from the familiar, they are without their usual sources of support, and in unfamiliar surroundings their tried and tested methods of coping and working are challenged; "failure" looms large and self esteem and confidence drops. Tasks which would normally have been taken in one's stride, can suddenly seem quite a challenge, or even feel impossible.
What might help?
- Talk to someone. If you haven't yet made friends here, then try a tutor, supervisor, chaplain, nurse or counsellor.
- Keep in good contact with the people you have left behind; arrange a time to go back to see them, perhaps after a few weeks. But also give yourself time within the university to begin to get involved here. Don't let looking back actually hinder moving forward.
- Encourage friends and family to come and see you in your new setting.
- Remember that many other people will be sharing similar feelings, although you may assume that they are doing fine! (You can't read their minds - just as they can't read yours!)
- You are allowed to feel sad and homesick! You are also allowed to enjoy yourself - it isn't being disloyal to those you miss!
- Be realistic about what to expect from student life and from yourself. Establish a balance between work and leisure: you are NOT expected to work ALL the time - you would soon burn out. On the other hand, if you don't put in enough time on work, you can very quickly get behind, which only adds to the stresses!
- If work is proving too difficult, can you improve your study skills or your organisation of time and work so that you gain satisfaction from what you do? There may be people in your College or Department or the Student Union who can help in this area, such as your Tutor, Supervisor or the Welfare Officer
- Remember to get enough food and sleep! These affect us emotionally as well as physically.
- Make contacts and friends through shared activities such as sport or other interests. There are so many clubs and societies within the university and city, that you are very likely to find something that suits your particular interests. At the start of the academic year many new people will be joining - you are unlikely to be the only new person.
- Give yourself time to adjust: you don't have to get everything right straight away. Nor do you have to rush into making major decisions about staying or leaving.
- Check out that you do really want to be at this university, in this college, studying this subject, at this time. Most people come through times of homesickness and go on to do well and enjoy their time at university. But for some it can be right to leave and take another direction. Those who do leave mostly find another course or university with which they are happy, perhaps after taking a year out. But if you are thinking along these lines, you need to take expert advice about the academic, career and financial implications. Your tutor is the first port of call for these issues.
- If you stop being able to do normal social and academic things, seek professional help either from your doctor or the counselling service. Don't wait until the problems have grown impossibly large!
We hope that some of these suggestions will prove useful. There are many things you can do to help yourself, but don't hesitate in seeking out the help of others. Homesickness is not unusual - and it can be conquered!