As America and the world shelter at home and maintain physical distancing to try and beat COVID-19 coronavirus, some are wondering if the cure is worse than the disease. While that’s debatable, one thing isn’t. Social distancing is creating mental health issues that experts failed to foresee.
I will admit that I miss traditional social interaction. As someone who enjoys being physically with friends and loved ones, this shutdown is a challenge. A visit to my local pub for a burger and a drink with friends is starting to sound like heaven.
Isolation and avoiding contact with others is unnatural for human beings. We are social creatures who are wired to do things with others. Depression, anxiety, fear for the future and despair are common among those separated from physical human contact for long periods of time. Add in the death-cult chorus of media idiots constantly sowing fear into the populace and things get even worse.
Normally, this kind of discussion would seem esoteric. The kind of thing that is one person’s opinion. Under the challenge we face, that of preventing our hospital systems from collapsing and our most vulnerable from dying, the sacrifice is worth it, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
Researchers from Swansea University and the University of Manchester have released a preliminary draft of a study about isolation, social distancing and mental health and emotional well-being. If their findings are accurate and widely applicable, we may be in some trouble.
Their work is part of an online, open science initiative and has been submitted to the journal BMJ Open. Their findings include the following:
- Depression and anxiety are being exacerbated by the reduction in physical and present contact with others stemming from social distancing practices. This impact is being felt across a wide swath of the otherwise healthy public.
- Those with low-paying jobs or whose occupations are not secured by being considered “essential” are experiencing the greatest effects.
- Many people are afraid their health will suffer or they will have broad social anxiety when the shutdown ends, preventing them from enjoying being among other people.
- A significant number, though, say they plan to return to their normal levels of social activity as soon as possible. That may be a ray of mental health hope.
The research is being led by Dr. Simon Williams, public health researcher at Swansea University, in collaboration with Dr. Kimberly Dienes and Professor Christopher Armitage of The University of Manchester’s Centre for Health Psychology, and Dr. Tova Tampe, an independent consultant at the World Health Organization.
The United Kingdom has experienced a broad and sweeping economic and societal lockdown on March 23. Using this as a backdrop, the team conducted five online focus groups made up of a broad cross-section of UK citizens.
The groups were asked questions about their mental health during this time and encouraged to explore their thoughts and feelings with researchers and with each other. After as little as two weeks, it became clear to the research team that many were having mental and emotional challenges related to the loss of social interaction.
Dr. Williams said: “Remarkable efforts are being made by the public to contain the spread of the COVID-19, and these efforts should continue as long as is necessary. Our study finds many people are really sticking to the guidelines on social distancing. However, it is coming at a significant cost to people’s mental health and wellbeing, particularly those in low-paid or insecure jobs.
“A rapid response is necessary in terms of public health programming to mitigate these mental health impacts. Waiting to provide support until after social distancing and isolation measures are relaxed or removed could have potentially devastating and lasting impacts on mental health, especially among those already socially and economically vulnerable.”
Dr. Dienes, a clinical and health psychologist, said: “One of the key themes was a feeling of loss. For some, social distancing has meant a loss of income. For others it has meant a loss of structure and routine as people struggle to balance working from home with childcare. For everyone it has meant a loss of face-to-face social interaction. Our study shows how these physical losses are having a knock-on effect in the form of emotional ‘losses,” such as a loss of self-worth, loss of motivation and a loss of meaning in daily life.”
Their study also provides some early indication regarding how people are likely to behave when the lockdown ends. People’s social behavior may have an effect on whether and how quickly COVID-19 continues to spread.
Dr. Williams added: “One of the big stressors for people was the fact they do not know how long the lockdown will last. It is possible that people will be less supportive and less compliant the longer this continues. Although some people are worried they will still be anxious about socializing for some time after the lockdown ends, others are already planning lots of social activities as soon as they are able. Government needs to take this into consideration as they plan their lockdown exit strategy.”
Being shut down as a society isn’t easy, nor is it natural. Whether it was all worth it is a question to be pondered after all is said and done. For now, look after your mental health and emotional well-being. Maintain contact with as many people as possible using remote communication technology. No, it’s not the same, but it also isn’t sitting alone feeling depressed about your situation and desperate about the future.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
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Journal Reference – Simon N Williams et al. Public perceptions and experiences of social distancing and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic: A UK-based focus group study, (2020). DOI: 10.1101/2020.04.10.20061267