Over the past eighteen months, physical and social distancing from others has been an important part of our daily lives, helping to reduce infections and keep ourselves and others safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while social and physical distancing has been important for reducing infection numbers and getting the coronavirus under control, there is no denying that for many people, it has had a profound effect on their mental health and wellbeing, leading to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation especially in older adults and people who live on their own.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been keeping their distance from others to prevent the spread of the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 which leads to the COVID-19 illness. However, this isolation including stay at home orders and self-isolation instructions for people who have symptoms, have tested positive, or been in contact with somebody who has tested positive for the virus have also had significant implications for mental health, contributing to issues such as anxiety, depression, and even dementia. Because of this, the World Health Organization has encouraged people throughout the pandemic to try and socialize at a distance wherever possible, such as using online chat platforms or talking to loved ones over the telephone. However, this has not been possible for many people and for others it is simply not the same as a face-to-face meeting.
The Impact of Isolation on Mental Health
Human services professionals such as behavioral and mental health professionals have seen an increase in mental health issues as a direct result of isolating oneself throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the WHO, social support networks have a significant impact on a person’s health and many countries now treat loneliness as a top health and wellbeing priority. It is true that social connection is crucial for both our mental and physical health and wellbeing. Some experts now believe that our interpersonal relationships with others are a crucial part of our survival and wellbeing. There are several different mental health risks of isolation to be aware of including increased risks of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and suicide. In addition, in older adults, being isolated and cut off from social support can also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Research has also suggested that there are links between isolation and certain physical health conditions including breast cancer and heart disease.
Who’s at the Highest Risk?
Over the past eighteen months, the world has been trying to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control which has led to health organizations and professionals around the world encouraging people to practice social and physical distancing as much as possible, since it is a highly effective way to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. However, the downside to this is that physical distancing can and has led to a lot of loneliness and isolation in the world. Older adults are at the highest level of risk and are especially likely to feel isolated. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers suggested that isolation was a problem that affected around eight million older adults around the world. Some of the other reasons that often contribute to the higher risk factors for loneliness and mental health issues as a result of being isolated for older adults include children leaving home, no longer working due to retirement, age-related health problems and the loss of a spouse, family members and friends.
For many older adults, these changes can lead to the breaking of many social ties, which can make it harder for them to keep up with an active social life. In addition to older adults, people who suffer with health conditions or disabilities that make it difficult for them to leave the home are also at a higher risk of suffering from the mental health impacts of isolation as they will also find it more difficult to socialize with others.
However, age and underlying health conditions are some of the highest risk factors for COVID-19, meaning that the groups of people who are at the highest risk of developing mental health complications from the effects of isolation and loneliness are the same people who have been urged to stay at home and socially distance the most throughout the pandemic.
Signs and Symptoms to Be Aware Of
If you think that you or somebody that you know has been negatively impacted in terms of mental health through social distancing and isolation throughout the pandemic, there are several signs and symptoms to look out for that might indicate that social isolation is having an adverse effect on somebody’s mental health. These include feelings of anxiety and depression, a passive attitude towards life, unusually aggressive behavior, memory problems, cognitive decline, poor quality of sleep, and a lack of self-care or neglecting oneself.
Researchers believe that the symptoms and signs of poor mental health brought on by isolation and loneliness are likely to be different depending on how old the affected person is. People aged 18-49, for example, are more likely to show symptoms such as struggling to focus or comfort eating more frequently. On the other hand, young people and children will often show more behavioral, emotional and cognitive difficulties.
How to Stay Connected While Staying Safe
The good news is that with the virus now getting well under control thanks to the vaccination program, there is less of a need to stay isolated and stay at home in order to keep yourself and others safe. However, there are still some situations where you may be advised to continue social distancing or stay at home to protect yourself or others, for example, if you have an underlying health condition that puts you at an especially high risk of complications from catching COVID-19 or if you test positive for the virus and need to self-isolate at home while you recover. In these situations, finding ways to stay connected to the people in your life can help to reduce the impact of loneliness and isolation on your mental health and wellbeing. The good news is that today there are many different safe and effective ways that you can use to reach out to your friends and loved ones including phone and text, social media, email, and video chat platforms.
How to Help Your Loved Ones
If you are currently worried about a friend or loved one who has suffered the mental health impact of loneliness and isolation throughout the pandemic, or somebody in your life who is continuing to keep their distance from people due to their personal situation right now, the good news is that there are several things that you can do to help. Encourage your loved ones to stay in touch with you using the safe channels that are available such as phone, email and video chat. If you have an older family member who is not very tech-savvy, you might want to consider getting them set up with a simple smartphone or computer that they can use to stay in touch with you more often. Visit in-person wherever you can and ensure that they feel safe, for example, by sitting outside and putting some physical distance between you so that you can still spend some time together without putting each other at any additional risk. You may also want to consider using rapid response COVID tests to put both of your minds at ease before visiting.
Getting Help If You Are Suffering
Even after restrictions have eased and the world has begun to go back to some semblance of normal, it’s not unusual for people to continue suffering from the mental health impact of social distancing and loneliness for eighteen months. If you are currently suffering with heightened depression, anxiety, or other worrying mental health symptoms that you believe are a direct result of being isolated from your friends and loved ones throughout the pandemic, you are not alone. In fact, some people have become so used to being alone that the idea of going back out and spending time with people again is causing them to feel extremely socially anxious.
If you can relate to this situation then the good news is that help is available. Human services such as support workers, counselors and therapists are there to help you work through these feelings and offer practical support and advice as you slowly adjust to the latest changes in the world as a result of the pandemic. If you are concerned for your health and wellbeing, reaching out to your doctor can be a good first step to take. Online therapy services such as BetterHelp have also proven to be incredibly useful for people who have suffered from mental health symptoms as a result of isolation throughout the pandemic and want to speak to a professional who can put their mind at ease and help them come up with healthier coping mechanisms for now and the future.
While social distancing and keeping ourselves isolated from others has been an important part of getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control over the past eighteen months, it has had a massive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of many people around the world.