Leaving for college is typically a time of excitement for students, one that represents new opportunities and, for many, their first venture out on their own, living away from family. But with that newfound freedom may come feelings of homesickness.
“With little exception, all students will feel homesick at some time, usually in the beginning,” says Tamar Chansky, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist who has written several books on children dealing with anxiety. “Whenever it does happen, know that it’s like a wave.”
College students may also experience homesickness around the holidays or after returning to the college campus from winter break, she notes.
“Typically, homesickness happens in periods of transition,” says Barry Schreier, communications committee chair for the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, an Indiana-based nonprofit that supports campus mental health professionals.
What it Means to be Homesick
Regardless of when students feel homesick, experts say, it represents feelings of grief or loss.
Schreier compares homesickness to a grieving process where students mourn the loss of what has always been around them. “It can come down to emotional things like missing a sense of belonging, a sense of being known, and all the comfort and regularity that come with that.”
Jason Parcover, director of the counseling center at Loyola University Maryland, wrote in an email that homesickness “is a normal response to being separated from the people, places, things and overall culture that give you a sense of belonging. In this way, homesickness is about attachment. When we feel homesick, we’re feeling insecure or uncomfortable with where we are. We’re longing for something that is known, predictable, consistent and stable.”
Kristina Scharp, a communications professor at the University of Washington, co-authored a study in 2015 that looked at what people miss when feeling homesick. Through a series of interviews, her research team found that homesick people miss activities, family, feelings and places.
“Generally, the things people miss are the activities that they used to do, their animals, their family, the feeling that they had when they were at home, the food that they might have eaten, the friends that they had, a general sense of routine and normalcy,” she says. “For many people, home is a feeling.”
Chansky likens homesickness to feeling “disconnected or between places.” Students are concerned about missing out, she says. What they’re missing out on can take on many forms – family traditions, time with friends, holiday celebrations – all of which can trigger homesickness.
Homesickness isn’t a clinical diagnosis like anxiety or depression, Parcover notes, but it can cause angst for students experiencing it. Students who are living with anxiety or depression may struggle even more to overcome feelings of homesickness.
Strategies for Coping with Homesickness
The good news: Students can beat feelings of homesickness.
“We probably shouldn’t call it homesickness, because the students having it aren’t sick,” Schreier says. He prefers “missing home.”
Even though being homesick is a feeling shared by many, Scharp’s research found that people often don’t want to discuss it. Reasons varied. Some were afraid of scaring younger siblings who were making their own college choices, while others thought the feeling would pass. Some felt that those in their social circles were unwilling to offer support, and others just didn’t want their peers to know how they felt.
“When we’re feeling bad, our inclination is to retreat,” Chansky says. Instead, students should open themselves up to new experiences, she says. “It’s important to create new rituals, find the place where everyone knows your name.”
Mental health professionals say students should understand what they’re missing and learn how to fill that void.
For students struggling with homesickness, here are suggestions for how they can create their own sense of home on campus:
- Recognize that feeling homesick is normal and temporary.
- Reach out to others for support and share your feelings.
- Create new traditions that make campus feel like home.
- Familiarize yourself with your new surroundings on campus.
- Establish routines that help you get through the day.
- Stay in touch with friends and family.
- Set expectations for your college experience.
- Find opportunities to connect with other students through student clubs or on-campus jobs.
- Volunteer for community service projects.
- Find a spiritual or religious community.
Schreier tells students it’s important for them to find people on campus with whom they can connect and develop a sense of community. “One of the nice things about a university or a college setting is it’s a place to go and be part of something bigger than yourself.”
Seeking Help for Lingering Feelings of Homesickness
While homesickness is not a clinical diagnosis, it can increase feelings of anxiety or depression, experts note. And that’s not all.
“It’s also associated with insomnia, problems with appetite, difficulty concentrating,” Parcover says. “Some individuals may have some obsessive preoccupation with home and what they’re missing. Others are more aware of feeling anxiety – experiencing an overwhelming sense of unease or tension.”
If college students can’t shake feeling homesick, they may consider campus resources available to them, such as a counseling center.
“It’s okay to feel homesick, everyone does,” Scharp says. “It’s okay to ask for help, to ask for what you need.”