COVID-19 has been a global threat for nearly a year, causing worldwide lockdowns and restrictions on social gatherings. These restrictions have led to widespread loneliness among people of every age group throughout the world. This phenomenon, which will be referred to here as “pandemic loneliness,” has resulted in mental health challenges in addition to the myriad of pandemic-related disruptions to everyday life.
In order to evaluate how COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of Canadians, Statistics Canada has created a series of questionnaires on their website called Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadians: Data Collection Series. According to these surveys, the percentage of Canadians reporting “excellent” or “very good” mental health has dropped from 68% in 2019 to 55% in 2020. The age group of 15-24 year-olds experienced the largest decline, dropping from 60% to 40% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Women are experiencing poorer mental health than men, and gender-diverse (identifying as neither male nor female) individuals are twice as likely as women and three times as likely as men to experience moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety. Additionally, 27.8% of visible minority group members have reported “fair” or “poor” mental health during the pandemic, compared to 22.9% of Caucasian individuals.
This decline in Canadians’ mental health can easily be linked to pandemic loneliness. A survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute found that the percentage of Canadians who feel they have a good social life has dropped from 55% to 33% during the pandemic, while the percentage who suffer from the combination of loneliness (feelings of disconnection from others) and social isolation (the state of being alone) has increased from 23% to 33%. In contrast, only 12% of the population reported experiencing neither loneliness nor social isolation. These feelings of isolation during COVID-19 are amplified by many factors, including unemployment, working and learning from home, and physically distancing from loved ones.
A study conducted in the United Kingdom identified groups at higher risk for pandemic loneliness as young adults, students, women, low-income individuals, economically inactive individuals, urban residents, and those living on their own. Pandemic loneliness affects various groups in different ways. For example, children are likely to be negatively affected by the lack of daily structure and unclear expectations that come with learning from home. Working-age adults who have lost jobs may experience a feeling of losing their purpose in life and a perceived lack of competency, along with the financial strain that comes with unemployment. Additionally, many working-age adults are being faced with the added duties of homeschooling their children, which can become another source of stress. Senior adults are already challenged in terms of their social interactions by difficulties with lack of transportation, physical ability, and living alone. For many, the pandemic has stolen the few opportunities for socialization available to them, such as community services, which are not operating during the pandemic.
It is clear that pandemic loneliness can affect anyone, with each age group experiencing a unique set of adverse effects. While some believe that lockdowns should end to allow people to get their social lives and financial stability back, this is not the answer. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are crucial for controlling the spread of the virus, particularly in heavily impacted areas such as the Greater Toronto Area in Canada. Unfortunately, people must isolate themselves from others in order to stay safe and keep others safe. Therefore, some strategies for socializing safely include wearing a mask and maintaining a two-meter distance from others (if current restrictions permit gatherings) and making use of virtual socialization methods, whether that is a video call with a loved one or a weekly virtual class.
Pandemic loneliness won’t go away for a while, but there are steps that can be taken to soften its effects. One useful strategy is to focus on the opportunity provided by lockdown rather than the things it has taken away. The pandemic may be a good time to work on hobbies and goals that would usually be pushed to the back burner — whether that’s learning a new language, instrument, or skill, reconnecting with loved ones, or making lifestyle changes. It can also help to avoid social media, as seeing pictures and videos of others happily socializing with household members can cause feelings of envy.
More mental health resources should be made available to the public, including ones targeted toward minority groups given the disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 mental health crisis is having on racialized and LGBTQ+ populations. Increased access to therapy would be ideal, with free or subsidized therapy being especially important considering the financial impact of the pandemic. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published web pages with advice on how to maintain one’s mental health during the pandemic, with tips targeted toward parents, older adults, healthcare workers, those with pre-existing mental health conditions, and more. It would be helpful if governments would promote this advice on social media and distribute it in a physical form so that those without Internet can access it. Furthermore, governments can reduce the stress put on essential workers by implementing legislation giving these workers increased benefits or that gives incentives to employers who implement workplace mental health support.
We must implement a system to help combat the mental health repercussions of pandemic loneliness, including increased access to therapy, better protection for essential workers, and initiatives to educate the public on how to take care of themselves during lockdown. It is important to acknowledge that the pandemic’s mental health effects are just as important to address as its effects on physical health.