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U of A making space for students to strike up conversation to combat loneliness

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University of Alberta students are taking action against what has been dubbed a loneliness epidemic.

Student Advocates for Public Health, a group of graduate students who advocate for public health initiatives, are leading the work behind "It Starts With Hello." 

The project, which will see seating areas installed across its campus in south Edmonton, is meant to foster safe social connection at the post-secondary level. 

"Creating these spaces for students to organically interact, it's truly so, so vital in developing that connection. Because that is, a lot of the times, the biggest barrier. It's just the hello," explained first-year student Nathanael Ip. 

In addition to helping with "It Starts With Hello," Ip serves as the vice president of outreach at the Friends Across Campus Club, which has a similar mandate. 

According to him, the club consists of both international and local students who are struggling to make meaningful relationships, whether it's because of the stress of school, relocating, social media or the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Coming from out of province, not being a student here, I really struggled with not knowing anyone. I really struggled with both the stress of university life and the stress of being in a new environment all alone. And really, what helped me with my own journey against my own loneliness is going to these events," Ip told CTV News Edmonton. 

The first of these seating areas was already set up on Wednesday in the main floor atrium of the Katz Group Centre for Pharmacy and Health Research, where the students announced the project.

Others will be placed near food services and all will feature a poster with a link to a set of question prompts designed to spark conversation, as well as information about university resources. 

A U.S. study published in 2023 concluded chronic loneliness could pose health risks as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes each day

Loneliness has also been linked to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and a decrease in overall life satisfaction. 

In a 2021 survey, more than one in 10 Canadians aged 15 and older said they always or often felt lonely

David McConnell, an occupational therapy professor at the U of A who has spent two decades studying chronic loneliness and who is helping with the project, says it's important to distinguish between pangs of loneliness and chronic loneliness. 

The former is a signal to reach out to friends and family and doesn't represent a significant public health issue. 

"Prevention is the key," McConnell told CTV News Edmonton. 

"Chronic loneliness is a hard problem to solve… I think loneliness begets loneliness. And one reason for that is that chronically lonely people tend to see the world as a more threatening place. So they're more likely to expect negative social valuation, so they're less likely to reach out as a result. It's that vicious cycle," he said. 

"That's how I see this initiative… Creating spaces, opportunities, for students to connect, to respond to those signals, to respond to those pangs of loneliness so that they're fleeting, rather than lasting and persistent."

He also said it's important to distinguish between isolation and a lack of connection, which the seating areas across the U of A are meant to foster. 

"Your world can be full of people and you can still experience loneliness… It's not just about being among people, it's about connecting to people." 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Marek Tkach 

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