The Impact of Social Isolation on Mental Health
One of the many strange phenomena that I’ve noticed in the last couple of weeks is the psychological distancing of people from one another. Pre Covid-19, popping to the shops or doing a little bit of gardening was an enjoyable source of social contact. I quite like people smiling, nodding, waving, saying hello as they pass by, or even stopping for a chat. As the Co-op and Neighbourhood Watch confirm, neighbourhood behaviour is the foundation of a strong community.
One evening last week my husband and I decided we needed to stretch our legs, so we planned a half-hour circuit around the outskirts of the village, down to the beach and back up the hill to our house. We followed the guidelines and kept our physical distance from others. On our way we passed one or two people on the other side of the road, a couple of dog walkers, a jogger, a mum with a child.
Whilst keeping a respectful distance, I raised my head in acknowledgement to say hello and noticed that they quickly put their heads down and hurried on by, making no eye contact. I found this a little disconcerting. We live in a small neighbourly community on a beautiful, friendly little island and I’m very used to passers-by saying hello.
This weekend we were out in the garden and not a single passer-by said hello or nodded on their way past. Every single person scurried past, head down, some wearing masks, not willing to make eye contact. This is the one aspect of lock-down that I’m finding quite unsettling.
I fully agree with, understand and support the need for us all to maintain a good physical distance from one other and I’m observing government guidelines but being psychologically distant from one another feels very disquieting to me. To help me understand what’s happening around me, I turned to research. Thomas and Tsai (1) highlight that psychological distancing can occur as a result of bodily distancing and that psychological distancing can help manage feelings of anxiety. It seems that we’re all just trying to manage our anxiety.
However we have to ask ourselves this: is now the time to be psychologically distancing ourselves from others? The dangers of loneliness and isolation are comparable to smoking and obesity. Research has shown that social isolation from friends and neighbours has a negative impact on mental health. Fiori and colleagues (2) have found that friend-centred networks (rather than family networks) are significantly associated with fewer depressive symptoms and research by Pfeiffer et al (3) highlights that peer support through social groups reduces depression.
Covid-19 requires us to be physically isolated from our friends and neighbours, which is why now, more than ever, we need to find ways to maintain psychological contact with others. The following are a few suggestions for maintain our psychological contact and reduce our psychological distance from one another, whilst adhering to government guidelines on maintaining our physical distance:
Acknowledge passers-by – just a nod or a wave and a smile across the street or over the garden fence may provide a little human warmth and contact for people struggling with isolation
Hang out in the garden – you can still chat to your neighbours and passers-by whilst maintaining a physical distance
Wave through the window – just sharing a friendly wave and a smile can lift the spirits
Telephone / text – text or call friends and colleagues, enjoying a little light banter can help take your mind of things
Video call – keep in touch with others outside of our family unit, as the research shows, your social contacts are good for your mental health – Facetime, Skype, WhatsApp, House Party etc are great ways to keep in touch with others
Online games – those of you in online gaming communities are already aware of the benefits of community gaming, but for those of us who are not, there are lots of apps out there to connect to friends such as Words with Friends, Scrabble and Kahoot!
Thomas, M and Tsai, C.I., Psychological Distance and Subjective Experience: How Distancing Reduces the Feeling of Difficulty. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 39:2, 2012: 39:2:324-340
Fiori KL, Antonucci TC, Cortina KS, Social network typologies and mental health among older adults, J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, 2006, 61, P25, P32, 10.1093/geronb/61.1.P25
Pfeiffer PN, Heisler M, Piette JD, Rogers MAM, Valenstein M. Efficacy of peer support interventions for depression: a meta-analysis. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2011;33:29–36.