Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Social Distancing Isn’t Natural. What’s It Doing To Our Mental Health?

June 2, 2020 by  
Filed under Health, Weekly Columns

( As people, we love to live our lives in groups. We’re not self-contained islands, sitting in a giant ocean, surrounded by water on all sides. We live in an interpersonal ecosystem. We need others in our lives to give us a sense of meaning and purpose. Being alone all the time isn’t fun. 

Historically, some people managed to flourish in isolation. The hermit who lives in the woods is the canonical example. But the vast majority of people suffer from it. Prison officers will often use solitary isolation as a threat that keeps inmates well-behaved during their time behind bars – that’s how bad it is. 

Social distancing, though, is throwing a spanner in the works. Typically, we spend our lives around other people, but now there is a vast cohort of individuals who must ride it out alone. 

Had the pandemic happened fifty years ago, the problem would have been much less. The vast majority lived in family units, with spouses and children. However, high rates of single life mean that nearly half of all households have just one person living in them, thereby upping the stakes.

What social distancing is doing to our mental health isn’t clear at the moment because the data are still coming in. But it looks like the story is mixed. People on furlough have largely enjoyed an extended period away from the office. It has given them a chance to spend more time with their family and enjoy these long, spring days. 

Those, however, who live by themselves haven’t fared as well. The crisis means that many have had to find all manner of coping mechanisms to see themselves through this tough spot. And sometimes, their methods haven’t been healthy. 

The current riots are perhaps an example of the effects of social distancing in action. Public health policies have pushed people to breaking point. All that was needed was a trigger, and we got it last week. Now, we see an outpouring of pain. 

Social distancing isn’t natural. It is something that fundamentally runs counter to our desires as human beings. We don’t want to spend months apart from our friends and family. It just doesn’t work. 

Fortunately, there are still telehealth services for people with mental health concerns. Here you speak with a trained professional via a video link, telling them about how you feel. Over the coming months, we’re likely to see far more people turning to services like these as the aftermath of the crisis begins to grip the economy. 

Scientists understand that pandemics are not good for mental health. They know from previous outbreaks, like ebola, that keeping people locked up in their homes increases the risk of anxiety and depression. Anxiety arises from fears of contagion and the gnawing sense that people aren’t able to live their lives. And depression mainly comes from the effects of isolation – many people rely on relationships to make them feel filled up. 

Fortunately, the relaxation of rules is coming soon, and we can look forward to getting back to regular life. This experience has been challenging for us all. 

Staff Writer; Paul Washington



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