Social isolation and mental health.

Humans are social creatures. If there was any doubt in that before, the current isolation that many are facing solidifies this fact. We only need to look at chimpanzees, or the relationship between a mother and her child for verification as to where this characteristic manifested itself from. It is unsurprising then that isolation can have severe negative connotations. Currently, with the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic, scientific experts and the majority of world leaders are highly recommending that everyone practice social distancing. This means staying approximately six feet away from others not within your household, alongside keeping public trips to an essential minimum (i.e. to get food if you cannot get it delivered). Whilst this may be an inconvenience to many, it is necessary to reduce viral transmission, protect the physically vulnerable and reduce the pressure on international health services. However, social isolation may have detrimental effects to those who are psychologically vulnerable; a category that I myself unquestionably fall into. 

Social isolation has definitely led to serious consequences. However, in psychology the term ‘social isolation’ is difficult to define. What matters the most is whether an individual actually feels lonely. Scientists have coined this ‘perceived social isolation, which can have negative effects both physically and psychologically. In young adults (18-27 years of age) for example, loneliness has been associated with poor sleep habits, depression and suicide. In addition, social isolation may increase the risk of illness and death due to cardiovascular disease. In the United States and United Kingdom, heart disease is one of the most prevalent killers of middle-aged and elderly individuals. At first glance then, these alarms should raise considerable concern.

However, things are never that straightforward. Researchers determined that isolated mice (which are highly social animals) have an increased risk of obesity and the development of type 2 diabetes. In some people, psychological distress can be associated with particular eating habits. For example, a bad diet is often associated with an increased risk of depression. This often results in a self-propagating cycle: depression facilitates a poor diet, and self-hate manifested as a consequence of this diet can fuel the fire towards further negativity.  

So, could this become a serious problem during viral-induced self-isolation? Should we be worried about people who are living alone, and for people with a history of mental health problems? Yes and no. From my perspective, I feel a bit stir crazy. However, I am otherwise fine. I have suffered with major depressive disorder for my entire adult life. I have lived on the razor’s edge for many years, attempting to take my own life on several occasions. As you can imagine then, my mind is often akin to a bag of f***ing cats. Despite that, my mental health during isolation has been relatively manageable. It is important to note that I do live with my long-term girlfriend. Nevertheless, I often prefer being entirely isolated. Many people who go through depressed episodes often want to be left alone. So being in close-quarters with the same person for so long with no reprieve could be considered as quite the challenge. That is partially true. I think the one thing for me which has helped me rationalize the situation and keep my mental health in check is pretty obvious: there is a global pandemic. We are all affected by the current situation. Because I can appreciate that, I think it removes some of the stress and self-destruction that would have otherwise lingered. I am not isolating and hiding away whilst others are out and enjoying themselves (unless you are being a selfish p***k). All of my friends and family are doing the same thing: watching terrible television and investing in toilet paper as their new international currency. 

In association with this pandemic, if you do not suffer with a pre-diagnosed mental health condition, please do not try and raise your arms up in solidarity with those who do, declaring you ‘now totally understand’ the difficulties associated with psychological illness. From a personal standpoint, it is patronizing beyond explanation. A few months of isolation is not even remotely comparable to the years of self-disregard and harm (whether physical or psychological) that many people may have (or currently are) dealing with. I am not taking aim at anyone specifically here, either. I just believe true empathy is more helpful to those in need. For me, I prefer it when people show genuine care. Talking about your mental health revelation on social media doesn’t help anyone. If you truly empathize and you believe someone is in need, why not call them? What about sending them a surprise gift in the post? Knowing that someone is thinking about me through direct displays of affection reduces that ‘perceived social isolation’ quite remarkably. 

That is what I want to accentuate. Just because someone is physically isolated, does not mean they have to become emotionally and psychologically isolated, too. Talk to your family and friends regularly. Organize an online pub quiz, play video games together with some headsets. How about sending pictures from the last time you saw each other? Perhaps even make plans for the end of the year when you can see each other again. Start preparing things you can look forward to. 

I do appreciate the concern for people struggling, but I also fully understand the risks if social distancing rules are not followed. Unfortunately, I have lost all my grandparents. I know the heartache. I would not want to see that happen to anyone close to me, but this virus appears to be particularly fatal in the elderly. Strikingly, of the people who were hospitalized in the New York City area, around 88% of patients on ventilators have died due to COVID-19. For some, this solidifies the virus as being a death sentence. Is isolation comparable to this for those who suffer psychologically? No. Just because I am unable to physically interact with the people I love does not mean I am unable to communicate with them. I am pretty isolated right now, geographically speaking. I live in the United States, whilst my family are back home in the United Kingdom. If one of them were to get sick, I would not be able to fly home due to flight and VISA travel restrictions. Whilst that is upsetting of course, I am determined to keep to a routine. I stick to activities that I know make me feel good: exercise daily, make music and of course, write these articles. 

I do acknowledge that some individuals may be particularly fragile during this time, such as a recovering self-harmer, alcoholic or drug addict, all of which may find self-isolation unendurable. These are the people that we must prioritize; protecting those most vulnerable in our community. This is no time for a ‘ME’ mindset. Selfishness is not needed or warranted here. It is time everyone started to develop a ‘WE’ mentality. With that in mind, please focus on the health of yourself and your loved ones during this difficult time. However, do so with some physical distance. If you stand in solidarity with those who suffer with mental illness, I would like to say thank you. Nevertheless, please do not paint everyone with the same naïve brush.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s