Although physical distancing is an effective way to slow the spread of many viruses, it can also lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially in older adults.
People are distancing themselves from others to help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. However, isolation has a significant impact on health, contributing to conditions such as depression, anxiety, and dementia.
For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) encourage people to continue socializing at a distance, such as by phone or via online platforms.
This article discusses how isolation and mental health affect each other. It also explores who is most at risk, some signs and symptoms that suggest a person may need support, and how people can deal with loneliness and isolation.
According to the WHO, social support networks can have a significant positive effect on health. In fact, many countries are now treating loneliness as a health priority.
Social connection is crucial for both mental and physical health. Some researchers even believe that relationships are a biological need and vital to our well-being and survival.
Some of the mental health risks associated with loneliness and isolation may include:
The world is currently dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and health organizations around the globe are urging people to practice physical distancing. Physical distancing is an effective method for preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but it may lead to loneliness.
Older adults are especially likely to feel isolated. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers estimated that isolation affected more than 8 million older adults.
One of the reasons that older adults are more at risk of loneliness is that they often experience important life changes, such as:
- children leaving home
- age-related health problems
These changes can break social ties, making it more difficult to socialize. People with disabilities or health conditions that limit physical activity may also find it more difficult to socialize outside the home.
Age and underlying health conditions are also risk factors for developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. The best way to protect vulnerable people is to practice physical distancing, but this can also exacerbate loneliness in people who already feel isolated.
The rate of loneliness in the United States is also increasing. Some experts suggest that a growing number of people in the U.S. experience isolation regularly. Other nations — including Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom — say that they are facing a loneliness epidemic.
Some societal trends may also cause social disconnection. For example, the average household size has decreased, and many more couples are deciding not to have children.
Researchers have also recorded lower attendance in social groups, lower participation in religious groups, and a decline in the average size of social groups in the U.S.
Other lifestyle factors that make it more likely that someone will experience loneliness include:
- living alone
- being single
Some signs and symptoms that suggest that isolation is affecting a person’s mental health may include:
- feelings of depression and anxiety
- aggressive behavior
- passive attitude
- poor sleep quality
- cognitive decline
- altered memory
- poor self-care or self-neglect
Researchers believe that the consequences of loneliness and isolation are different depending on a person’s age.
For example, people aged 18–49 years old may struggle to focus, or they may eat more frequently. Meanwhile, children and young adolescents may experience more cognitive, behavioral, and emotional difficulties.
Finding ways to connect with others can reduce the effect of loneliness on people’s mental health as they shelter in place.
Reaching out to loved ones, friends, and those in need takes many forms today. With multiple platforms to choose from, people can connect via:
- phone and text
- social media
- video chat platforms
With physical distancing protocols in place around the world, the WHO recommend helping people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a good idea to contact members of the community who may be at risk of isolation, loneliness, and health complications.
Knocking on a neighbor’s door and staying a safe distance away, or calling them on the telephone, can remind them that they have nearby support. Setting up regular phone calls or video chats can also help decrease feelings of loneliness.
Sending someone care packages is another way to stay connected. People looking after vulnerable individuals can pick up medications or drop off groceries and other essentials at their doorstep.
Also, although many businesses are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible to find exercise programs, beauty and grooming videos, and courses online. Participating in online activities with other people can promote a feeling of connection and decrease loneliness.
People experiencing loneliness should seek help from a doctor or therapist if they notice any signs or symptoms of anxiety or depression. These may include:
- restlessness or irritability
- persistent worry
- sleeping too much or too little
- an inability to concentrate
- suicidal thoughts
When checking in on someone else, it is worth checking if they are eating, sleeping, and taking care of themselves. If they are struggling, they may benefit from support.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to self-isolate to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. However, loneliness may have serious health consequences and can exacerbate conditions such as depression, anxiety, and dementia.
Socializing from a distance, such as via online platforms, can help ease feelings of loneliness and prevent its complications, especially for people who are vulnerable.
Anyone experiencing changes in their mental or physical health due to isolation should speak to a doctor.