With the COVID-19 social distancing regulations well underway, the past few months have shone a spotlight on the importance of maintaining our physical health, from the necessity of regular and proper hand-washing to adapting to at-home exercises. The emphasis on supporting public safety has also impacted how we travel and our interactions with others. However, the stress accumulated during this time is also a conversation that cannot be skipped, and it’s important to understand how the uncertainty surrounding the future has greatly affected global mental health during this pandemic.
In a world that is becoming increasingly connected online, we know that aloneness does not equal loneliness. In fact, it can even be healthy to allow moments of solitude as an opportunity for relaxation after a particularly stressful day. And sometimes, being alone allows you to exist without the social expectations that need to be met in company. But regular human interaction is important for our wellbeing, and being deprived of it can be detrimental to our mental health. As we navigate this global health crisis, it will become more important to understand how quarantine and its consequences have impacted social relationships, and what we can do moving forward to mitigate the damage.
While not everyone may crave human contact to the same degree, forming social bonds is a key to lasting mental well-being within our communities. Interacting with others allows us to understand and acknowledge different experiences, and to better educate others. Many are navigating through most social interactions with technology, and it can seem hard to be truly “isolated” because of the various ways we’re allowed to connect with others through technology. So this should keep us from being lonely during quarantine, right? Of course, it’s not that simple.
Social isolation can carry very real consequences in the face of COVID-19 because face-to-face interactions provide benefits that just can’t be met online. For example, people tend to feel much closer and more happier when they’re able to interact in person, and there is a better chance of showcasing personality and understanding someone’s body language. In fact, in a study done by Common Sense Media in 2012, most US teens prefered in-person conversations with friends than chatting online, while the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research found that most students and faculty prefer in-person instruction.
Being deprived of face-to-face interactions can cause loneliness, leading to a lack of motivation and self-esteem. Our physical health is also impacted by loneliness in various ways, such as declining cognitive performance (like memory), higher blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping. As well for hospitalized patients, being deprived of human interaction can prove to be mentally scarring, especially with the uncertainty surrounding their recovery.
With quarantine regulations in place, many people have had to adjust to remote working and/or working less hours altogether. Some have had their jobs placed on hold, while others have been let go entirely. In our current society, work can provide both an income and source of fulfillment in terms of social interactions. It provides a place to strengthen our professional interpersonal skills, such as understanding body language, active listening, paying attention to verbal and non-verbal cues, that carry forward into our personal lives. We may also feel a greater sense of purpose and self-esteem when working with others toward a common goal. And so, losing work not only deprives us of a source of income, which can prove to be stressful and anxiety-inducing, but also limits our social networks.
For parents, dealing with a child’s energy in a small space is a different challenge altogether, as social isolation can have negative impacts on a child’s cognitive development. In fact, the Ipsos Public Affairs Annual Mental Health Index survey found that 60% of Ontario respondents who were parents had noticed negative changes in their child or children’s behaviour since the start of the pandemic, including trouble sleeping and irritability. Playing with peers provides a chance to develop social skills and understand morality, while school staff can help with emotional regulation. It also allows children the ability to form “essential” relationships outside of their immediate family. Children without siblings and without access to technology are also especially vulnerable to loneliness, and 14% of respondents also said that their children had been feeling “sad and hopeless” more frequently since the pandemic began.
Seniors face greater challenges amidst the pandemic as patients 65 and older make up 80% of COVID-19-related deaths globally. Many are isolated in retirement homes (much of which in Ontario have carried the brunt of the pandemic) cut off from family, and have limited access or knowledge of technology. Others must maintain distancing within their own homes to avoid contact from the virus. This social isolation has therefore led to confusion, anxiety, and even an increased mortality rate within the elderly population.
Depending on the country, restrictions may be starting to loosen in regards to public life. Many countries are just coming out of lockdown and have begun to open up some businesses, while others are creating plans in anticipation of the 2020-2021 school year. Regardless, experiences with social isolation will be different from person to person even as regulations start to ease, and may require long-term attention.
What can we do, starting now, to provide help where it is most needed? In Ontario, organizations such as Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) and Addictions and Mental Health Ontario (AMHO) have already started research looking into which families need immediate mental health and financial support, so an important step for the government might be to divert funds into services such as therapy and counseling based on this research so they can be allocated efficiently in the long-term.
Taking advantage of current mental health support services is also a vital step. For example, BounceBack is a free virtual self-help program based in Ontario that helps individuals aged 15 and older build coping techniques for anxiety, stress and worry. The Canadian Mental Health Association offers a variety of support lines including assistance for postsecondary students and suicide prevention, counselling for Indigenous and LGBT youth, and peer mental health support. The CMHO also has a variety of COVID-19-related resources to support parents, including tips for handling grief and anxiety. Stella’s Place also has an app called “BeanBagChat” that provides confidential chat support from Peer Social Workers for young adults in Canada aged 16-29.
Mon Ami is a program that helps socially isolated seniors by placing them in contact with younger volunteers. While based in the USA, it offers many resources on companion care. Joy Zhang, the founder of Mon Ami, also offers advice on helping the elderly during the pandemic such as providing care packages, donating iPads and tablets to senior facilities, and even becoming a Phone Bank volunteer caller with the program.
In addition to these services, we can also take personal steps to support our mental health during social isolation:
Staying in touch with friends and family is a given, whether it be calling, texting, or using platforms like Skype and Zoom. Joining online forums and reading blogs related to your hobbies and interests is also a good way to meet new people. A great app called QuarantineChat was specifically created to simulate “surprise conversations” by connecting strangers during social isolation.
Sticking to routine can be helpful for mental health because of its predictability. It may help to, for example, schedule activities like meals and walks for certain times of the day. The CMHO advises parents to involve children in routine-making (such as choosing dinner) to give them a sense of control within their environment, which may prevent them from feeling helpless and disconnected. Including fun activities, exercise and learning something new throughout the day can also be beneficial.
Mara Howard, a Ryerson alumni who studied social work, suggests dividing up a living space into “activity corners”, to avoid boredom and to change your perspective and view as you move between areas as you do different activities.
It’s also important to acknowledge “re-entry anxiety” as we begin to restart our lives, a kind of stress involved with the conflicting need to socialize and fear of exposure to the virus. To manage this, many experts say to focus on things we have control over, such as maintaining physical health, and start by connecting with a closed circle of friends and family outside on a park or trail.
How we choose to interact and where we choose to go may be different from others around us, but it’s normal to have fear and uncertainty. What we can do is understand our own individual limitations and boundaries when deciding how to act during and after social isolation, while also respecting public safety.