Often when we think about bullying, we think of schoolyard bullying: young boys being physically aggressive and young girls gossiping. Bullying is assumed to be outright and easy to identify — obvious, even. However, bullying is rarely addressed at the post-secondary level.
Social media, particularly Instagram and Snapchat, have greatly contributed to the development of bullying at large.
According to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, seven per cent of people over the age of 18 have experienced cyber bullying. In a post-secondary environment, social media use is not monitored by parents or staff and cyber-violence often goes unaddressed.
The university experience, particularly for new students, can also be incredibly isolating. It is not uncommon to see students sitting in lectures, walking to classes, or eating meals all alone. A 2016 survey across Canadian universities by the American College Health Association found 70 per cent of students felt lonely throughout the school year.
Loneliness has become such an issue that Ontario doctors are offering “social prescriptions” as part of a pilot project to combat loneliness, according to a report by MacLeans. Doctors prescribe their patients with dance lessons or community gardening, for example, providing a structured way of referring people who access primary care to a range of local, non-clinical services that promote social connection.
For many students, the transition from high school to post-secondary is a difficult one. It can mean leaving behind childhood friends, family, and well-established support systems.
“I live outside of Edmonton, so it really felt like finding friends was going to be impossible for me,” explained third-year psychology major Kate Richardson. “I didn’t want to commit to commuting back and forth for a club. People met up in places in Edmonton that I had never heard of,” she continued.
Making new friends can be especially hard when it seems like everyone around you has an established friend group or study buddy. Feelings of isolation can be exacerbated by the cultural idea of university: the best years of your life, in which you meet life-long friends.
Jeanette Sabourin, second-year math major, explained that her friends from high school were graduating by the time she began her studies, which contributed to major feelings of isolation.
While post-secondary institutions across Canada have made strides in terms of mental health supports for students, there are no obvious institutional supports for those suffering from bullying and loneliness.
This means that students have to make the first steps themselves. However, there are several different options for students looking to make new friends.
The Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU) is home to over 100 student groups, ranging from general clubs like the Anthropology Club or Design Students’ Organization, to niche clubs like InQueeries or the MacEwan Improv Club.
Sabourin said the student clubs and shared spaces were a major draw of MacEwan University, particularly InQueeries, an LGBTQ+ club. “Making friends was fairly easy once I had taken advantage of the clubs,” she added.
Peer Support is a student-operated SAMU program that provides students with a safe, confidential environment to discuss life’s stresses and tough situations with a trained peer listener.
MacEwan also offers psychological services, for those struggling with feelings of isolation or depression.
“I think the key was to hang on,” Richardson offered. “It sounds cliche but, you’ll probably look like a chicken with your head cut off in your first year, trying to figure everything out under this guise of ‘I got it, university is easy.’”
“When you’re more comfortable, use situations to your advantage: use group projects to make friends, go to a single event that you’re interested in instead of committing to a club, say that joke out loud and see if someone laughs,” she advised.
Richardson added that it is equally important for those experiencing bullying or isolation to not only seek out friendships from others, but offer friendship to those who may need it. “Be that friend for someone. Respond to someone’s effort to reach out, say hello to the newcomer at the event, laugh at someone’s attempt to make a joke about homework. I can’t stress this enough: one friend will make a world of a difference,” she said.